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Low-Income Americans Face Major Obstacles To Weight Control, New Survey Finds

Chicago, IL; October 31, 1995 -- At a time when obesity rates are especially high among low-income Americans, a new national opinion survey finds that those with family incomes of less than $25,000 a year face significantly greater obstacles in adopting healthier eating and activity habits.

Commissioned by Dr. C. Everett Koop’s Shape Up America! Campaign and released at the national convention of the American Dietetic Association (ADA), the survey reveals that both lower and higher-income Americans know what is needed to achieve a healthy weight, but lower-income people are often thwarted from taking these steps because of concerns about neighborhood safety and a number of cost issues. Consequently, the survey provides new evidence that lower-income Americans may be more sedentary and are having more difficulty adding fruits and vegetables to their diet.

"What these findings make clear is that obesity is not an equal opportunity disease," said Dr. Koop. "Lower-income Americans are at greater risk for obesity because they lack the resources that many of us take for granted. This survey serves as a major wake up call that community action is needed to make it easier for those with a lower income to adopt a healthier lifestyle."

The survey, conducted by Yankelovich Partners, Inc., polled 1599 urban residents, almost half of which (47 percent) have family incomes before taxes of less than $25,000 a year. By comparing the attitudes and concerns of these lower-income Americans with the rest of the general public, the survey uncovered a number of barriers that make it more difficult for low-income Americans to be more active and eat a better diet. These barriers are especially problematic in the area of physical activity, where lack of access to parks, sidewalks and recreational areas as well as concerns about neighborhood safety are major deterrents for lower-income people to be more physically active.

According to the survey findings, over half of Americans making less than $15,000 a year (51 percent) say the inability to afford a gym or health club keeps them from becoming more physically active. In contrast, of those making over $25,000 a year, only 23 percent share this concern.

In addition, low-income Americans are more likely to worry about the safety of their neighborhoods for walking or jogging. While 15 percent of people at higher-income levels expressed concern over neighborhood safety, twice as many (31 percent) Americans making less than $15,000 said this was a problem. In light of the extremely high prevalence of obesity among non-white females, it is noteworthy that women are the most concerned about neighborhood safety. Regardless of income, one in four women (25 percent) say that safety is an impediment compared to 16 percent of men.

The survey also explored the barriers to healthy eating, finding that cost is a major factor. Specifically, one in four Americans making less than $15,000 a year agree that "fruits and vegetables cost too much to buy all the time." In contrast, only 8 percent of those making over $25,000 believe that food prices are an obstacle to eating a healthier diet.

Besides identifying many of the barriers to achieving a healthier weight, the survey also provides new evidence that lower-income Americans are more sedentary than their higher-income counterparts. Using television watching habits as an indicator, the survey finds that Americans with lower incomes tend to watch more hours of television a day. Almost half of those polled (42 percent) say that they watch three or more hours of television a day. Of those watching the most television, 62 percent have incomes of $24,999 or less compared with 38 percent of respondents with incomes of $25,000 or more.

Even more revealing, the survey compared television watching to respondents’ weight levels, finding a direct correlation between television use and obesity. By asking respondents for their height and weight, Yankelovich was able to calculate the Body Mass Index (BMI) levels for those surveyed which indicated individuals who are overweight, underweight, or of normal weight. When cross-referencing BMI levels against television habits, the survey found that over half of the most overweight respondents (52 percent) watch three or more hours of television daily compared to 38 percent of normal weight individuals.

According to Barbara J. Moore, Ph.D., Executive Director of Shape Up America!, "The findings from this survey do not allow for complacency about current anti-obesity efforts. The messages about physical activity and healthy eating can not be readily adopted by many of the people for whom they are intended."

To change this situation, one of the goals of Shape Up America! is to advocate for more community resources for physical activity and nutrition programs. "Sidewalks, parks, playing fields and community programs that promote activity need to be viewed as assets that can contribute to better health," said Dr. Koop. "While there are obviously some costs involved, the result in terms of reduced health care expenditures will far exceed the dollars spent."

The Yankelovich survey comprised interviews with 1599 adults living in urban areas, equally split between men and women. The sample was divided between those with total family incomes of $24,999 or less, and higher income people with family incomes of $25,000 or more. Additionally, 31.3 percent of the sample was non-white Americans. Using random digit dialing to a nationwide sample of urban areas, interviewing was conducted from September 27 to October 8, 1995.