Poor Schools the Trump Card in Teen Obesity

We’ve all heard plenty about the causes of obesity in Americans, and especially of American youths. People in poverty buy high sugar, high carbohydrate foods because they’re cheap and easy to find. (Plus they taste amazing.) Uneducated people assume that their 30-minute walk burns 900 calories while that Subway foot-long Italian monstrosity with extra cheese and dressing has only 8 grams of fat and 500 calories. Poor school systems don’t have the ability to provide healthy activities or food for their students.

I suppose those three are the biggies when it comes to teenagers. Besides some of them just being lazy or enjoying their video games a bit too much, the wealth of their school, wealth of their parents and education of their parents are pretty big factors when it comes to leading a healthy lifestyle. Naturally, each is important in its own right, but are any of them more important than the others? Is there a certain mix of characteristics for schools and parents that has a more dramatic effect across the board?

This is the question that Molly Martin and Michelle Frisco from Penn State tried to answer in a recent study. And the answer is yes, certain variable seem to be more important than others and certain combinations make a big difference.

The researchers came to their conclusions by analyzing the responses 20,745 students in 7th through 12th grades from 140 high school and middle schools in the 1994-1995 school year. Why so long ago? Simply because none of the subsequent surveys included the children’s parents.

After teasing out the data, they found that parents education is much more important in fighting teen obesity than their income. The authors reason that even if a family is making $10,000 more than another, it does no good to their health if they spend it all on an entertainment center and X-Box. On the other hand, if well-educated parents aren’t making much, they can still make smart decisions at the grocery store and make their kids get off their ass from time to time.

Naturally, there also was a multiplicative effect. Kids whose parents were both educated and better off financially fared better with their waistline, as did kids in a well-off school with another one or two positive factors going their way. But what was surprising was the effect that a poor school had on kids even if they had educated parents.

According to the study, it doesn’t matter if your parents are Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, if you go to a school with a lot of poor families, you’re probably going to be a bit tubby. For the poorest schools in the study, the positive effects of educated parents all but disappeared. The authors speculate that poorer schools aren’t able to offer as many athletic activities or healthy options during lunch, or that with a greater number of poor families, being overweight becomes more of the norm and less looked down upon.

And we all know that how others see you and treat you might be the most motivating influence for middle school and high school behavior.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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