Rise in unemployment during recession linked to weight gain in children

Johns Hopkins researchers analyzed data on 1.7M California students

Johns Hopkins researchers have pinpointed an unexpected consequence of the recent recession: weight gain in children.

The researchers from JHU's Bloomberg School of Public Health focused on data from counties in California, finding that an increase in unemployment from 2008 to 2012 was associated with an increased risk for weight gain among public school students.

The study, published June 1 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found that children during this period, on average, faced a 21 percent increased risk of becoming overweight.

"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," says study leader Vanessa Oddo, a PhD candidate at the Bloomberg School. "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."

For every one percentage point increase in county-level unemployment between 2008 and 2012, children faced a 4 percent increased risk of becoming overweight.

Prior research has shown that even small changes in weight in children and adolescents can increase the risk of developing chronic diseases in the future.

In the Hopkins study, researchers analyzed data from the California Department of Education, focusing on the 1.7 million schoolchildren aged 7 through 18. The researchers compared that data with county-level unemployment estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The team discovered that for every one percentage point increase in county-level unemployment between 2008 and 2012, the children faced a 4 percent increased risk of becoming overweight.

In 2008, as the recession was just starting, 28 percent of the children in the state's public schools were considered overweight. The percentage peaked at 40 percent in 2009, and by 2012 it was 37 percent.

Though the study shows a clear correlation between unemployment and children's weight gain, the researchers can only speculate on the reasons behind their findings. One theory is that families might have changed their food purchasing habits to save money.

"The stuff that is convenient and tasty is also high in calories and may be the kind of food people turn to in these economically constrained times," says study senior author Jessica Jones-Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of International Health at the School of Public Health.

Another possibility is that school districts might have changed their offerings, for example cutting down on sports leagues or other exercise-promoting activities.

The researchers say that their findings highlight the importance of keeping social safety nets in place during times of economic downturn, such as liberal unemployment benefits and healthy breakfast and lunch programs at schools.

"It is critical that policymakers understand that economic shocks do have implications for the health of children and take steps to mitigate the negative consequences," Oddo says.

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