While all segments of the U.S. population are affected by obesity, one of the common myths that exists is that all or virtually all low-income people are far more likely to be obese. In this generalization, two facts commonly are overlooked: (1) the relationship between income and weight can vary by gender, race-ethnicity, or age and (2) disparities by income have been weakening with time, particularly for adults.
Overall, the research for a greater risk of obesity is more consistent for women and children (especially White women and children) of low-income or low-socioeconomic status than for men. For example:
- According to 2005–2008 national data, obesity rates tended to increase with decreased income among women, but this trend was only significant for White women (not Black or Mexican-American women) (Freedman, 2011; Ogden et al., 2010a). Among men, obesity rates were fairly similar across income groups or tended to be higher at higher levels of income. In fact, among Black and Mexican-American men, those with higher income were significantly more likely to be obese than those with low-income.
- Obesity rates significantly increased with decreased income among White boys and girls in analyses of NHANES 2005–2008 data, but no significant trends with income emerged among Black or Mexican-American boys and girls (Freedman, 2011; Ogden et al., 2010b).
- Poverty in early life was linked to later childhood obesity in a recent study of 1,134 children in 10 U.S. cities (Lee et al., 2014). More specifically, children who experienced poverty by two years of age were 1.66 times more likely to be obese by 15.5 years of age than children who did not experience early poverty.
There is some evidence that where there are gaps between high- and low-income groups, they have been closing with time among adults as those with higher incomes become more obese (Jolliffe, 2011; Singh et al., 2011; Zhang & Wang, 2004). However, there also is recent evidence that disparities persist or have even worsened over time for children and adolescents (Datar & Chung, 2015; Frederick et al., 2014).