Taxpayers Fund $42 Million to Probe How Disparities of Income and Race ‘Cause’ Obesity

October 18, 2009 - 5:52 PM
Researchers are probing why being poor makes you much more likely to be overweight.

(AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The federal government is spending $687 million dollars to fund research into the so-called obesity “epidemic” – including $42 million for studies to probe why people with lower incomes, ethnic minorities and “under-served populations” are fat, and what to do about it.
 
According to the National Institutes of Health, researchers are being paid to study everything from whether reducing television watching will prevent obesity in Hispanic children to whether regular telephone calls from health-care providers will help black women in their weight–loss efforts.
 
More than 190 grants to universities and researchers are currently being funded that link obesity with income level and race, including the following (as listed by NIH):
 
-- “Race and Health Outcomes Associated with Obesity”
$392,018
 
-- “Assessing and Preventing Obesity Among New Immigrants”
$638,395
 
-- “Weight Loss Maintenance: Exploring Racial Differences”
$34,045
 
-- “Understanding Social Status' Impact on Adolescent Health”
$645,207
 
-- “Socio-Environmental Influences on Nutrition and Obesity”
$101,445
 
-- “Racial Disparities in Obesity: Role of Culture and Environment”
$139,437
 
The assumption behind many of the studies is that obesity is caused by “disparities” based on income level or race.
 
In one study, the University of Pennsylvania was awarded more than $395,000 to study the “Dynamic Relationship of BMI and SES Over the Life Cycle and Between Generations.” BMI – or Body-Mass Index -- is a ratio of weight to height, and can be an indication of obesity. SES refers to income level and social standing.
 
“Persons of lower socio-economic status (SES) are more likely to be obese, especially among women,” the NIH summary of the study explained.
 
“This finding can be considered in the context of a more general literature on social disparities in health, where many argue that disparities are predominantly due to the causal effects of SES on health.”
 
Other studies are particularly targeted towards “interventions” -- treatment and prevention programs -- involving specific ethnic or social groups, including:
 
Baylor College of Medicine in Dallas was awarded $133, 590 to conduct the study titled, “Reducing Television Viewing to Prevent Obesity in Hispanic Preschool Children.”
 
The study, being conducted by a pediatrician and an assistant professor of pediatrics, is designed to address the higher rates of obesity and TV viewing among Hispanic children.
 
“The hypothesis is that decreasing TV viewing in Hispanic preschoolers will decrease excess weight gain,” the research abstract said. “The applicant will test the effectiveness of the TV reduction curriculum, Fit 5 Kids, which has already been shown to decrease TV viewing in a population of predominantly white children from rural, upstate New York.”
 
Some other studies receiving funding:
 
-- “Helping Worksites Support Healthy Eating & Physical Activity Among Native Hawaiians”
$50,000
 
-- “Physical Activity & Nutrition among Pacific Islander Youth: An Exploratory Study”
$154,048
 
-- “Telehealth for Weight Maintenance of African-American Women”
$189,875
 
-- “Bright Start: Obesity Prevention in American Indian Children”
$693,490
 
-- “Guided Imagery Stress Reduction Intervention for Obese Latino Adolescents”
$31,246
 
-- “SisterTalk at Home: Home-based Weight Loss for African American Women”
$635,987
 
Is Poverty the Culprit?

According to statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control for the period 2006 through 2008, 35.7 percent of non-Hispanic blacks (men and women) are obese – the highest level for any ethnic group. That compares to a rate of 28.7 percent for Hispanics and 23.7 percent for non-Hispanic whites. 

More than 39 percent of non-Hispanic black women are obese, followed by non-Hispanic black men (at 31.6 percent), Hispanic women (29.4 percent), Hispanic men (27.8 percent), non-Hispanic white men (25.4 percent), and non-Hispanic white women (21.8 percent). These differences were consistent across all regions of the country.

Moreover, nationwide, people making $15,000 are about five times more likely to be overweight than someone making $150,000.

Douglas Besharov, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland who has studied the obesity problem, said the link between obesity and poverty is real.

“There is surely an association between poverty and obesity, as there is between poverty and many social problems,” Besharov told CNSNews.com. “There are a number of reasons for that, but the primary one is that higher income people tend to value their lives and their health more than lower income people.”

But the current assumption of many researchers, he said, is that poverty causes obesity and the reason why poor people are fatter is because wealthier people eat healthier diets that poor people can’t afford.

The theory is: Diets made up of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fish are far more expensive than high-sugar, high-fat, processed food, refined carbohydrate-dense foods. 

For researchers, he said, it is not so much a question of behavior -- of people being responsible or irresponsible about food choices -- it’s about people not having “access” to a healthy diet or health spas. 

“There is a tendency among some researchers to say, ‘Well, one of the problems is that there aren’t enough supermarkets in the inner city. Let’s put more supermarkets there, and if they can’t make a profit, let’s subsidize them,’” Besharov said. 

In fact, one of the real culprits behind obesity among the poor, Besharov said, is government.
 
Federal agricultural subsidies have so lowered the price of sugar and high-caloric additives, that the foods that are the least healthy for us are the most subsidized by the government and the most fattening for the poor.” 

In fact, there is a direct connection between the lack of money, government subsidies and obesity.

“If you’re hungry and you don’t have a lot of money, you’re more likely to buy a candy bar than something that’s a little healthier, because the federal government subsidizes the sugar in that candy bar,” Besharov said. “Now, I’m not one of those who say, ‘Let’s tax the candy’ or ‘Let’s tax the soda.’ All I say is, don’t subsidize the stuff.”

Meanwhile, Cato Institute adjunct fellow Patrick Basham, co-author of the book, “Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade,” told CNSNews.com that even if being poor temake you fat, American culture seems to be headed in the opposite direction. In the future, it is more likely that being fat will make you poor. 

“Governments are currently attempting to ‘denormalize’ obesity, i.e. stigmatize being fat or obese to pressure people to ‘shape up,’ while employers and health insurance companies are beginning to discriminate against fat/obese people,” he said. “The end result will be fat or obese individuals who can no longer afford medical care and can't get a job, not because of ill health, but because of a government-led campaign to shame them because of their size.”

CNSNews.com correspondent Karen Schuberg contributed to this report.