Richer doesn’t tend to mean thinner for ethnic minority children, new study finds

5 September 2019

New research suggests that privilege doesn’t protect ethnic minority children from gaining weight in the same way as it does their White peers.

Researchers from the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Washington analysed data on more than 11,000 7-year-olds born in the UK at the turn of the century, who are being followed by the Millennium Cohort Study. They compared the BMIs of children from poorer and richer households, within four ethnic groups – White; Black African and Caribbean; Indian; and, Pakistani and Bangladeshi. The researchers took into account the fact that weight and body fat differ between boys and girls.

The findings confirmed previous research that has shown that coming from a wealthier background is linked to a lower risk of having a high BMI – but only for White children. The study found that White children from less advantaged homes had a 13 per cent higher risk of being overweight or obese than White children who were more advantaged. However, this pattern did not hold for other ethnic groups.

In fact, the opposite was true for Black African and Caribbean children. Those from poorer homes had a 37 per cent lower risk of being overweight or obese than Black children from richer families.

Among Indian children, there was no statistically significant difference between those of wealthier and poorer parents. This was also true of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children.

By mid-childhood, more than two fifths (42%) of Black African and Caribbean children from more advantaged homes were overweight or obese, compared to over a quarter (27%) of those from less well-off homes. Among Pakistani and Bangladeshi children, more than a quarter (27%) of those from richer homes were overweight or obese compared to more than a fifth (21%) from poorer homes. Just under a quarter (24%) of wealthier Indian children were overweight or obese, compared to over a fifth (22%) of their less privileged counterparts. Among White children, under a fifth (18%) of those from richer homes were overweight or obese, compared to just over a fifth (21%) of those from poorer homes.

The researchers examined what role healthy lifestyles played in the socioeconomic differences within these ethnic groups, as previous research has suggested that the increased risk of overweight and obesity among less advantaged children is driven by poorer diets and fewer opportunities to be physically active. They considered 13 potential factors that could explain the relationship between family income and children’s weight, covering mothers’ health behaviours during pregnancy and a year after birth, as well as information on children’s diet and levels of exercise at age 7.

Once again, the findings confirmed previous evidence that among White families, lifestyle differences are an important driver of socioeconomic inequalities in overweight and obesity. On average, less advantaged White children had unhealthier diets, took less exercise, were less likely to have been breastfed, and were more likely to have a mother who smoked during pregnancy. These differences largely accounted for the disparities in weight between poorer and richer White children.

However, these patterns were less clear among ethnic minorities. Among all minority ethnic groups, socioeconomic differences in health habits were either much less stark, or in fact reversed. For example, among Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Black African and Caribbean children, those from poorer homes were less likely than their wealthier peers to have sugary drinks between meals, and were more likely to eat breakfast every day.

Importantly, healthy lifestyles did not explain the socioeconomic differences in weight for any ethnic minority groups.

Dr Alice Goisis, one of the study’s authors, said: “It might be easy to assume that obesity levels are higher among some ethnic minorities because they are relatively disadvantaged in the UK, and that those inequalities are driven by unhealthier behaviours, as they are among White groups. But our findings challenge these assumptions and point to the need for future research.

“It might be the case that within some ethnic minority groups, people from less advantaged backgrounds have healthier diets than their more advantaged peers. Previous research has shown that among the Black Caribbean population in the UK, those from poorer homes are prepared to spend a greater portion of their disposable income on traditional Caribbean food than their wealthier counterparts. On the other hand, other studies have shown that within the UK’s Black Somali population, consumption of fruit and vegetables was low as it was perceived to be associated with poverty.

“Public health initiatives could be much better designed and targeted if we can get to the bottom of what’s driving these inequalities within ethnic minority groups, rather than assuming the underlying causes of obesity are the same across the board.”

Further information

‘When richer doesn’t mean thinner: ethnicity, socio-economic position and the risk of child obesity in the U.K.’ by Alice Goisis, Melissa Martinson and Wendy Sigle is available online on the Demographic Research website.

For further information please contact:

Ryan Bradshaw – UCL Institute of Education
020 7612 6516

Meghan Rainsberry – UCL Institute of Education
020 7612 6530

Notes for editors:

  1. Levels of children’s overweight and obesity were based on their body mass index (BMI), which measures the ratio between height and weight. It is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by squared height in metres. The study used the International Obesity Taskforce (IOTF) cut-offs for BMI to define overweight and obesity in relation to children’s age and gender.
  2. As children from different ethnic groups with similar BMIs tend to have variations in body fat levels, the researchers used alternative weight measures to test their findings. After accounting for body fat and waist circumference, the results remained unchanged.
  3. To examine the links between socioeconomic background and rates of overweight and obesity within each ethnic group, people were grouped by family income. Those in the top three fifths (60%) of the income distribution were placed in the higher income category and those in the lower two fifths (40%) of the income distribution were part of the lower income group.
  4. The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) is following 19,517 young people born across the UK in 2000-01, building a uniquely detailed portrait of the children of the new century. The last survey of parents and children took place in 2018-19 when the study members were age 17. Data from the Age 17 Survey will be available in early 2020. The MCS is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of government departments, and managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the UCL Institute of Education. Visit
  5. The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leading centre for research and teaching in education and social science, ranked number one for education worldwide in the 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 QS World University Rankings. It was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2016. In 2014, the IOE secured ‘outstanding’ grades from Ofsted on every criterion for its initial teacher training, across primary, secondary and further education programmes. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework assessment of university research, the IOE was top for ‘research power’ (GPA multiplied by the size of the entry) in education. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 8,000 students and 800 staff. In December 2014 it became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education.
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