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Canadian children living in poverty at greater risk of obesity: study

Canadian children living in poverty

Are Canadian children living in poverty more at risk of obesity?

Health and wealth are strongly related, as the research already shows. We know, for instance, that people in lower socioeconomic positions are more likely to have difficulty accessing nutritious foods and are less likely to be physically active, thus leading to poorer health. But what about perceived poverty?

A new study from McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy has found that not only do material differences such as income level and access to grocery stores have their impact on obesity rates in Canada but also psychosocial factors such as the perception of poverty in comparison to one’s peers – the perception of relative poverty – can have their impact on health trends.

The new study analyzed data from the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey conducted in 436 schools across Canada (New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island excluded) in 2010 and concluded that Canadian children living in relative poverty and relative deprivation impacted daily habits (less physical activity overall) and dietary behaviours (skipping breakfast, less dietary restraint and less healthy food choices).

“Approximately one-third of Canadian children and adolescents are estimated to be either overweight or obese,” say the study’s authors, “Most youth do not outgrow this problem and obesity in children and youth increases the risks of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea and cardiovascular disease.”

A study of fast food outlets in Edmonton, Alberta found that neighbourhoods with higher unemployment, low income and renters also had higher concentrations of fast food restaurants.

The HBSC survey was given to students in grades six to ten and, along with questions geared towards dietary and health habits, it asked questions related to family affluence, both perceived (such as “How well off do you think your family is?”) and objectively formulated (such as “How many computers does your family own?”) The results showed both the subjective and objective measures of poverty to be correlated with poorer health habits and obesity, in part due to the psychological stresses associated with social comparisons of wealth amongst classmates.

The study’s authors suggest that relative socioeconomic differences between students may act as a barrier to obesity prevention and that efforts should be made to reduce such differences within school settings. Equally, they point out that while obesity prevention programs often focus on material measures such as access to healthy foods, education and sports and recreation facilities, they should not neglect the psychosocial impacts on health and obesity trends of perceptions of relative economic inequality.

The built environment has for some time been known to be a barrier to the development of healthy dietary habits for those in lower socio-economic strata. A study of fast food outlets in Edmonton, Alberta, for example, found that neighbourhoods with higher unemployment, low income and renters also had higher concentrations of fast food restaurants.

And a U.S. study found that schools located within a half-mile of a fast food restaurant had students who ate fewer fruits and vegetables, consumed more soft drinks and were at greater risk of becoming overweight.

The HBSC study is a World Health Organization collaborative project funded by each participating country. The current study on obesity was published online in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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