PM+: Low income linked to childhood obesity

Poorly educated are struggling to sustain healthy lifestyles, argues Jean-Michel Borys.

By Jean-Michel Borys

06 Feb 2015

Across Europe 50 per cent of men and women are overweight and 20 per cent are obese. In contrast to other health risks, such as tobacco and malnutrition, obesity rates are not decreasing. Obesity is a plague that hits particularly hard among disadvantaged populations.

The first results of, co-funded by the European commission, have demonstrated that parental socioeconomic status is related to behaviour that influences childhood obesity prevalence.

Families in which the mother has a lower level of education tend to eat less fruit and vegetables and spend more time in front of the television in comparison to families in which the mother has a higher education level.

"Obesity is a plague that hits particularly hard among disadvantaged populations"

There were also significant differences between the seven countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Netherlands, Portugal and Romania) where the project was rolled out.

Such findings are important, because obesity is a multi-factorial illness; the consequence of individual behaviour, genetics and environment. However, obesity prevention often consists of isolated, punctual efforts. But that does not work.

That is why coordinated pan-European projects, such as the EPHE project, are so important.

With this project, we aim to understand how culture and socioeconomic background influences behaviour on four pillars: fruit and vegetable consumption, water consumption, sleep, and screen time. It helps us to better tailor interventions to reach everyone in a community – and to close the health gap.

Initial results have shown that parental practices and the family environment are decisive influences on the tendency for children to be overweight or obese.

Parents who have a lower level of education find it more difficult to sustain a healthy lifestyle (availability of fruit and vegetables, monitoring screen time, negative modelling, enforcing rules etc.) and therefore, their children are more likely to become overweight or obese.

And that is wherein lies the added value of the community-based approach, as outlined in the EPODE model. By including everyone in the local area - schools, restaurants, shopkeepers, institutions etc. – we create an environment that helps families adopt healthier lifestyles.

Projects such as EPHE are essential in understanding dynamics within a community, so that community-based interventions can evolve. This first baseline survey has taught us that strengthening parental capacity and working on the environment are paramount for sustainable interventions among deprived populations.

"Parents who have a lower level of education find it more difficult to sustain a healthy lifestyle"

We must all work together for the health of future generations, and the community-based approach offers the most promising results. Programmes based on the EPODE model exist in 35 countries worldwide but in order to develop them further, continuous political engagement and financial support is required.


About EPHE

The EPHE project is a pan-European project (2012-2015) co-funded by the commission and private partners (Ferrero, Mars, Danone) to analyse the added value of the implementation of the EPODE methodology for the reduction of health inequalities and the opportunities to sustain the implementation of EPODE programmes via EU structural funds. Other partners in EPHE include seven universities and community-based programmes across seven European member states.

The EPHE baseline survey results discussed in the article will be completed by two follow-up evaluations, scoring the impact of specific interventions to target deprived populations and measuring their sustainability in time.

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