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Prioritizing Obesity Prevention in Chicagoan Youth Populations

Prioritizing Obesity Prevention in Chicagoan Youth Populations

Obesity is a serious and costly issue in the United States (US), with obesity costing about $173 billion a year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. According to CDC data, obesity affects approximately 14.7 million children and adolescents with a prevalence of obesity at 19.7%. Moreover, higher obesity prevalence is found among Hispanic children at 26.2% and non-Hispanic Black children at 24.8% when compared to non-Hispanic Asian children at 9% and non-Hispanic White children at 16.6%. 

Despite Tik Tok’s popularity as a social media platform, with over 150 million American users, the US plans to ban Tik Tok over concerns about sensitive information being exposed according to CNBC. Other countries are also trying to ban Tik Tok.

Content-related messaging from non-experts is another issue. A  recent qualitative content analysis study found key themes in food, nutrition, and weight-related posts on TikTok among 1,000 Tik Tok videos. Posts created by mostly White, female adolescents, and young adults focus on weight normative messaging-weight loss content and weight transformation. Glorification of weight loss, utilization of food to achieve health and thinness, and the absence of expert voices on delivering nutrition and health information are alarming. 

Along with TikTok, the media circulates nutrition and health information that lacks expert voices. In a recent review of evidence, researchers found a high prevalence of stigmatizing presentations of people with overweight or obesity in mass media and media discourses that contribute to obesity such as people having complete control over their weight, fatness is inherently bad, and fatness should be avoided at all costs. 

This messaging conflicts with the Healthy People 2030 in addressing overweight and obesity in the US., which recommends eating healthy and engaging in regular physical activity to maintain a healthy weight. In Chicago, obesity is prevalent among Chicago Public School students and youth from racial and ethnic groups, experiencing lower improvement in obesity rates when compared to non-Hispanic White youth according to the Chicago Department of Public Health [CDPH].

 As a Black public health nursing researcher for over nine years, born and raised in Chicago, my research is dedicated to reducing health disparities by focusing on addressing childhood obesity in Black youth. While I see the significant role of parents in promoting the health of youth, I see how parents and their children require support. In a recently published examination of data obtained from a large randomized controlled trial, Chicago Heights Early Childhood Center (CHECC) by my research team of two colleagues from DePaul and the leading investigator at the University of San Diego, we found that over 80% of the parents who are overweight or obese from low socioeconomic status neighborhoods have a child who is overweight or obese. In addition, we identified associations between parents’ diet and body mass index. 

To be sure, efforts are in development to address obesity disparities. Addressing the root cause of health disparities involves improving social and economic resources, building community capacity, and fostering anti-racist, multicultural systems as emphasized in the CDPH’s Healthy Chicago 2025 plan. Future efforts should also include helping parents and their children discern information shared through social and mass media by non-experts. In addition, the dearth of expert voices on social media platforms like TikTok should be addressed by helping healthcare providers create content that is based on factual advice and appealing to viewers according to a recent qualitative content analysis. 

People from low economic groups and racial and ethnic minority groups must have access to healthy food and opportunities to engage in physical activity. Several strategies for achieving accessibility to built environment features that support physical activity as outlined in a recent scoping review include the following: 1) preserving existing affordable rental units, 2) assisting current residents that want to live in the neighborhood, ensuring that a share of new development is affordable, 3) creating incentives for developers of affordable houses, 4) facilitating property sites for affordable housing, 5) securing long-term housing, 6) engaging with community members on affordable housing and displacement, and 7) utilizing overarching thematic approaches to displacement and affordable housing.

Social and economic factors serve as key drivers of increasing obesity rates in the United States according to the 2022 State of Obesity Report. Policy actions for federal, state, and local policymakers and other stakeholders are highly recommended as noted in this report. These actions should include: 1) increasing funding for programs such as CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease and Health to put proven obesity programs in place, making healthy school meals a permanent policy and increasing opportunities for physical activity during the school period, 2) addressing the structural drivers of chronic disease, 3) decreasing food insecurity and improving access to nutritional quality food, 4) eliminating unhealthy food marketing to children, 5) imposing excise taxes on sugary drinks and devoting this funding to local obesity prevention programs that serve communities most at risk, 6) increasing support for maternal and child health, 7) providing funding to active transportation projects such as creating spaces more conducive to physical activity, and 8) improving access to health care through insurance coverage with no cost sharing. 

With Healthy Chicago 2025 priority populations being Black, Latinx, and low-income Chicagoans and the need to achieve racial and health equity, I am calling upon Chicago’s newly-elected mayor and national policymakers to address this.

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