updated 5/23/2006 4:28:48 PM ET 2006-05-23T20:28:48

Americans in their upper teens who are living in poverty have grown fatter at a higher rate than their peers, according to research that seems to underscore the unequal burden of obesity on the nation's poor.

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"Today the percentage of adolescents age 15-17 who are overweight is about 50 percent higher in poor as compared to non-poor families, a difference that has emerged recently," said Johns Hopkins' sociologist Richard Miech, the study's lead author.

Obesity rates among all teens climbed substantially during the study, which covered 30 years. But the great divide according to income occurred most notably among the 15- to 17-year-old age group.

That led one outside expert to challenge the findings. Rand Corp. economist Roland Sturm said it seems implausible that younger teens would differ so much from older teens. Even if they do, he said, "It seems a rather secondary issue compared to the general trend in weight gain across all youth."

Miech argued that older teens generally have more autonomy to buy what they want and to determine their own activity levels, which he said might explain the results. And Sturm and other experts said the study's underlying message about obesity and poverty is sound.

The study appears in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association. It is based on data from 10,800 youngsters ages 12 to 17 who participated in four nationally representative health surveys conducted from 1971 to 2004.

The researchers determined poverty levels using family income and the U.S. Census Bureau's poverty threshold.

In the early 1970s, about 4 percent of poor youngsters ages 15 to 17 were severely overweight, compared with about 5 percent of teens who weren't poor. By the early 2000s, those rates jumped to 23 percent of the poor and 14 percent of other kids, the researchers said.

Richer getting fatter, too
The results contrast with recent research suggesting that while the poor are most likely to be overweight, obesity rates among U.S. adults have climbed fastest in recent decades among those with annual salaries over $60,000.

Miech said both could be right because eating and exercise habits are different for adults and adolescents.

Over the past decade, the percentage of calories from sweetened drinks has grown by more than 20 percent among kids in the 15-17 age group — an increase concentrated among the poor, he said.

"We also find that physical inactivity increases with age in adolescence, as well as the probability of skipping breakfast," said Miech. "Both these factors are more likely to be found among the poor and are also associated with overweight."

Economic differences have been linked to other health problems too, including AIDS, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. The disproportionate rates emerge as wealthier people seek medical care and make lifestyle changes, while the poor do not, said Barry Popkin, a nutrition scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Heavy teens, heavier adults
The study shows that this trend "is emerging in late adolescence and just building into adulthood," Popkin said.

The results also show the need for healthful resources in low-income neighborhoods, said Dr. Rebecca Unger, a Chicago pediatrician who works with a group seeking to lower obesity rates among Chicago children.

Adam Drewnowski, a University of Washington researcher, said the disparity will persist unless the underlying problem, poverty, is also addressed.

"The campaign against obesity and the struggle against poverty are, in fact, one and the same," he said. "...Healthier diets cost more," he said, and access to physical activity "depends on how much money you've got."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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