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November 1, 2017 | 3 minute read

Environment, Finances Differ Among Families with and without Obese Children

Having limited access to healthy foods is one of the many factors that may contribute to young children becoming obese, according to a recent government report. The study, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, adds to the understanding of how a family’s surroundings and economic disparities can play a role in childhood obesity.

About one in five school-aged children in the US now has obesity, placing them at increased risk of having obesity as adults. Among adults, overweight and obesity increase the risk of many common cancers, along with other chronic diseases.

The study used one-week food purchasing data for almost 5,000 families who were part of a nationally representative survey. The researchers then compared characteristics and food habits of families with at least one obese child to those without any obese children.

When comparing families with at least one obese child to those without any obese children, the study found little difference among eating patterns and nutritional quality. Most of the differences focused on socio-economic factors.

Study highlights include:

  • Children who are obese have parents who are more likely to be unmarried, be less educated and to have obesity, compared to families with no obese children.
  • Compared to families with no obese children, families with at least one obese child have lower monthly incomes. These households are also less likely to own a house or a car, and own fewer numbers of cars.
  • Households with at least one child who is obese are typically located in areas with lower access to food outlets that sell healthful foods.
  • In urban areas, households with at least one obese child live in areas with easier access to convenience stores. Convenience stores have limited healthful choices and typically sell relatively high amounts of processed foods, which can contain high amounts of added sugar and fat. In rural areas, these households are in areas with less availability of superstores and supermarkets, which offer healthful foods choices.
  • For families with and without obese children, the number of times families eat dinner out or at home and the number of times children eat lunch, dinner, and snacks during the week are similar.
  • The overall nutritional quality of purchased food is similar, except families with no obese children purchase more seafood and plant proteins, particularly from food prepared away from home.

The authors stress that the findings are correlations, and more rigorous research methods are needed to draw any causal connections. Parents reported their children’s heights and weights which could be mis-reported. The study also examined only one week’s worth of food purchases, which could affect findings if the family was well stocked and had no need to buy any food that week. The study also focused on household purchases, not what the children consumed.


Childhood Obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Population Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Page last updated: January 25, 2017.

Young Jo. The Differences in Characteristics Among Households With and Without Obese Children: Findings From USDA’s FoodAPS, EIB-179, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, September 2017.

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