Fattening fears

The more concerned parents are about neighborhood safety, the more likely their youngsters will be overweight, a new study finds.

When pediatrician Julie C. Lumeng was working at an inner-city clinic in Boston, parents of overweight children often told her, “I can’t send my kids out to play because it’s not safe. There’s too much crime,” she recalls. The new study “grew out of that experience,” explains Lumeng, now at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Her team randomly selected families of 768 first graders from 10 locations around the country who were part of a long-running federal study on child health. The children were divided into four groups on the basis of their parents’ ratings of safety-related issues such as neighborhood crime, police presence, and drug-related activity.

Of the children whose parents had ranked their neighborhoods least safe, 17 percent were overweight, compared with just 4 percent of youngsters whose parents had the fewest reservations about local safety, the researchers report in the January Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. This trend held for all demographic groups, including children from upper-income families.

The supposition, she says, is that parents’ safety concerns lead to kids being cooped up indoors where the opportunity for exercise is limited and food is easily accessible.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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