The Link Between Poverty and Adolescent Obesity

Obesity has been a growing problem over the past couple decades, and childhood and adolescent obesity continues to raise concerns in health experts. Cases of childhood obesity have grown three-fold within the past 30 years, affecting approximately 31.7% of kids ages 2-19, and this trend is concerning because of the long-term health risks associated with obesity. While across the world it’s richer, more developed countries that generally have higher obesity rates, within the United States it’s a bit different. Obesity rates are highest among low-income Americans, and with the rising number of Americans living in poverty, it’s important to understand how poverty and obesity are linked and begin looking at changes that can help solve this problem.

How is Poverty Linked to Obesity?

Some of the best lifestyle changes that can combat obesity are making healthy eating choices and staying active regularly. In adolescents, however, those choices are affected by their community and their family. Growing up in impoverished communities result in multiple barriers to engaging in the healthy behaviors that combat obesity.  Here’s a look at some of the unique challenges low-income individuals face to maintaining healthy behaviors, showing the link between poverty and obesity.

Low-Income Areas are Often Food Deserts

According to the USC Department of Nursing, in low-income neighborhoods, there’s often a lack of farmer’s markets and full-service grocery stores that provide high-quality, healthy food choices, such as low-fat dairy products, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. These areas are often referred to as “food deserts” and they can leave locals with only small corner stores and convenience stores where healthy fare is limited.

Vehicle Access

Vehicle access is another challenge that low-income families have to accessing nutritious, affordable food. Low-income households are less likely to have a vehicle that allows them to go food shopping regularly. When they do buy food, they may be limited to only the amount they can carry on public transit or while walking. Others may only be able to head to a store once a month with a friend of family member, and when doing most of the monthly shopping at once, they end up purchasing fewer perishable items, such as healthy fresh vegetables and fruits.

Easy Access to Fast Food

Although low-income communities are food deserts for healthy food, they usually have easy access to fast food. Fast food restaurants are known for serving a large selection of nutrient-poor, energy-dense foods for low prices. Not only are these foods high in calories, they don’t provide the nutrients the body needs. Eating fast food regularly can be responsible for weight gain.

Healthy Foods are Often More Expensive

It’s often more expensive to choose healthy food items, and not only are healthy food items costlier, there’s a greater potential for waste with perishable items. Processed foods last longer, are usually inexpensive, and are easy to find in low-income areas.

Fewer Options for Physical Activity

Studies show that adolescents in low-income neighborhoods also have fewer options for physical activity. There are fewer green spaces, recreation facilities, and parks, and in many cases, the areas that are available can be dangerous due to high crime rates in these areas. With limited access to these types of resources, obesity becomes a bigger problem.

Economic Insecurity Leads to Stress and Can Cause Stress Eating

Economic insecurity results in severe stress for parents, and that stress can be passed along to children as well. Many people dealing with stress turn to stress eating, eating large amounts of sugary, high-fat foods, which fuels the obesity problem.

Long Term Risks of Adolescent Obesity

Multiple studies show that adolescent obesity is higher in impoverished families, and if young people are obese in their adolescent years, they are more likely to be abuse into adulthood. This brings along with it some long-term risks, including:


  • Obesity in young adults has been linked to lower levels of income, limits on the ability to attain a higher education, and unemployment.
  • Obesity increases the risk for ongoing health problems, including some types of cancer, depression, and heart disease.
  • Individuals who are obese in their adolescent years may be more likely to pass along poor eating and exercise habits to their own children later in life.

Making Changes to Reduce Obesity

Since studies clearly shows a link between poverty and adolescent obesity, it’s important to begin looking for changes that can be made to reduce obesity specifically in low-income communities. Making changes to both the physical and social environments is essential and finding ways to intervene on a community and neighborhood level can help make a difference.

Making changes in the foods served at Head Start programs and in schools can make a difference, since offering healthy foods at school and in pre-school is shown to help reduce the risk of childhood and adolescent obesity. Offering new resources in neighborhoods that promote organized, safe physical activity can also make a difference. Finding ways to help low-income families that live in food deserts can help as well, and New York City has sponsored a “Green Carts” program that sends mobile food carts to poor neighborhoods offering fresh produce.

Making investments in nutritional programs and physical activities within both education institutions and in low-income neighborhoods may prove helpful at reducing the risk of adolescent obesity among impoverished young people. However, it’s important that charities and governments work together to fund these types of programs to ensure that disadvantaged Americans living in poverty are helped in effective ways.