UW Study Links Socioeconomic Status with Obesity in South and Southeast King County

The link between obesity and poverty isn’t necessarily a new one. A vast array of studies in the past have drawn a connection between socioeconomic status to obesity rates in the United States and throughout the world. Still, a recent study led by University of Washington Professor of Epidemiology Adam Drewnowski goes further than ever before, finding that folks from South and Southeast King County are far more likely to be overweight than their more well-off local neighbors.

Using data provided by Group Health insurance - the first time actual hard health care records have been utilized in such a study - the UW’s effort looked at roughly 60,000 men and women from South and Southeast King County, finding that factors like home value and education status played a significant role in predicting whether or not residents might suffer from obesity. The study was published by the International Journal of Obesity.

“In previous years we’ve used self-reported data” from telephone interviews, Drewnowski told KUOW’s Marcie Sillman about what made this most recent obesity study different, noting that having access to Group Health Insurance records made for a far more accurate picture of the problem. Not surprisingly, Drewnowski told KUOW that over the phone respondents have a tendency to fudge the facts when it comes to their own height and weight.

Specifically, the UW’s study used home values as opposed to income, because, as Drewnowski told KUOW, “Income does not give you an idea of economic security. … We think that house values give you a better idea of accumulated wealth” and overall security.

Of the findings, Drewnowski also explained to KUOW that the UW’s research shows having a high school education isn’t enough to reduce a person’s risk of obesity.

“In King County, having a high school education is not enough. You have to go to university,” Drewnowski said, explaining that college-educated people are more likely to have better attitudes toward nutrition, for example. And, explaining the somewhat obvious, Drewnowski also noted that, “More education generally means a better job and more money.”

If there was one thing that surprised Drewnowski in the findings, he told KUOW that it was the large obesity rate disparities in a relatively small study area.

“Our results show that certain areas were much more obesogenic than others,” he said, pointing out that there are areas of Seattle and King County where obesity rates are around 5-percent, and others were the rates hover around 30 percent.

Aside from painting an alarming picture of what lower education rates, economic insecurity and reduced access to healthy food can have on the overall health of a population, Drewnowski told KUOW that he hopes this study - and others like it - can help public health officials “target intervention in specific areas that need them.” He said this might include predicting the rates of diseases like diabetes, and helping to determine where hospitals and doctors’ offices are built.

It’s worth noting that, despite the obviously negative implications of the UW’s study, it was limited to people who have health insurance - meaning the overall picture could be even worse.

“I suspect the situation is going to be much worse” for people without insurance and employment,” Drewnowski told KUOW.

You can listen to Drewnowski’s full interview with KUOW here - which you totally should.

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