How Your Postcode is as Important as Your Genetic Code for Childhood Obesity


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The western world is getting fatter. It’s hard to ignore the spiralling rates of obesity in developed countries such as the UK and US, where more than one in four of us is now clinically obese. But perhaps even more alarming is the speed at which our children are becoming dangerously fat. More than one-third of children in the UK are now either obese or overweight and in the US the rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years. Being an obese child doesn’t just mean you might get picked on at school, it also significantly increases your likelihood of developing heart disease, diabetes and having a stroke when you are older.

There is an ongoing discussion among academics as to the exact causes of this very real obesity crisis. This includes the usual argument of how much nature versus nurture creates childhood obesity. Now a new study has shown that living in a walkable neighbourhood has an important effect on whether a child is obese or not.

Two fast food places on every block

The new study, led by Seattle Children’s Research Institute looked at several factors including kids nutrition, local neighbourhoods and levels of physical activity in Seattle and San Diego. The researchers used GIS software to map children’s access to fast food and more healthy sources of food such as supermarkets. They found that San Diego has a much bigger appetite for junk food than Seattle, with an average of two fast food restaurants on every block in San Diego County, almost twice that of Seattle.

Walkable and play-friendly post-codes

The study also mapped childrens neighbourhood walkability and access to parks. When they compared the two spatial factors of access to nutritional food and walkability they found that these had the most important effect on obesity levels. Children who lived in walkable areas, with a child-friendly park nearby and access to healthy food had 59% lower odds of being obese. Kids that lived in car-dependent neighbourhoods with more fast food outlets had the highest levels of obesity (16%, which is the US average). But only 8% of children were obese in walkable areas with access to more healthy food.

This new research highlights the importance of walkable locations as a key part of the fightback against obesity, as Dr Brian Saelens, the study leader, pointed out:

People think of childhood obesity and immediately think about an individual’s physical activity and nutrition behaviors, but they do not necessarily equate obesity with where people live. Everyone from parents to policymakers should pay more attention to zip codes because they could have a big impact on weight.

Images courtesy of mrpattersonsir and laprimadonna on flickr

  • ScaredAmoeba

    I believe the phrase ‘obesogenic environment’ is appropriate.If people are scared to walk or cycle, children will be prevented from exploring their local environment and never learn the natural joy of freedom to wander and play.

    I believe these links may be of interest:

    If one watches Roads,
    Casualties and Public Health: the Open Sewers of the 21st
    , would realise that in the UK, motor-vehicles
    selectively kill the children of the poor and are a major preventable
    cause of death of children and young adults. While millions are spent
    in fighting cancer and other diseases of the young, virtually nothing
    is spent on reducing the deaths of children and young adults as
    cyclists or pedestrians. This has to change.

    I first heard concerns about the appalling toll of child victims in the Netherlands from David Hembrow, who mentioned that this was an important factor in the massive drive in 1973 by a pressure group to pressurise the Dutch Government to reduce child road casualties, this resulted in money being made available for cycle paths and reversing the declining trend in cycling and led to the state of cycling in the Netherlands we see today.

    Stop the Child Murder

    David Hembrow also mentioned the UK is 21st [bottom!], just behind the US in UNICEF’s Child Well-Being Table, where the first four are Netherlands, Sweden Denmark & Finland.

    What the Dutch did for cycling: All those myths and excuses in one post. Strategies that reduce child road casualties are vitally important and they will restrict the rights and freedom of people to operate dangerous machinery in close proximity to pedestrians and cyclists, and rightly so. The freedom and virtual impunity for callous motorists that casually murder children with motor-vehicles has to stop!

    As a result, children, are being incarcerated from an early age, whether in their homes and in cars, not being free to explore and learn about the road. Given that lifelong behaviours and attitudes are formed early-on, it is little-wonder that obesity is tied to where we live.