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Unemployment, Changing Economic Conditions Impact Children's Weight

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Changing economic conditions can be felt in children's health. Findings of a new study have found an association between unemployment during the recent Great Recession and risks of children becoming overweight or obese.

In a new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health on June 1, Vanessa Oddo, from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and colleagues looked at the data of 1.7 million public school children in California who were between 7 and 18 years old.

The researchers also looked at the unemployment statistics of counties across the state and found that between 2008, when the recession started, and 2012, a 1 percent increase in country-level unemployment was linked to a 4 percent increased risk of children becoming overweight.

During this period, the average increase in unemployment was 5.4 percent, which means that the children's likelihood of becoming overweight was up by about 21 percent.

Twenty eight percent of children were considered overweight in 2008 at the start of the recession but the percentage of overweight kids went up to 40 percent by 2009 and remained high at 37 percent in 2012.

"Comparing children to themselves over time, we provide evidence that increases in county-level unemployment are associated with increased overweight/obesity risk," the researchers wrote in their study.

The study did not prove a causal relationship between childhood weight gain and economic hard times but one likely reason that could explain the link may be the changes in the way families buy food.

The researchers said that due to reduced economic resources, families may opt for cheaper but higher calorie alternatives instead of more expensive but healthy food trading fresh fruits and vegetables for highly processed convenience food.

School districts may also cut back on sports program and after-school activities that promote physical wellness during economic downturns. Communities may also be compelled to close playgrounds and parks that encourage kids to play and exercise.

Without such activities, kids are vulnerable to adopting a more sedentary lifestyle. Children may end up spending more time watching TV. One study has found that just an hour of TV daily can increase children's risk of becoming overweight or obese.

Overweight and obese kids are likely to face an array of health conditions. They also face higher likelihood for sudden death as adults.

"This study tells a dramatic story about the negative and lasting health effects of an economic shock like the Great Recession, effects that have not been fully understood," Oddo said.

"Childhood obesity is one of the biggest public health concerns of our time. And since it's not easy to lose weight once it is gained, this period of economic hardship could have consequences that last long into adulthood."

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