By Michael F Filosa

Neighborhood obesity?

Neighborhood obesity?

Studies show that circumstances of a neighborhood contribute to the prevalence of obesity in that neighborhood. Socioeconomic factors and environmental circumstances contribute to obesity.


An individual's body weight of is essentially the result of the calories of food consumed and the amount of calories expended by physical activities: intake of energy in excess of requirement for daily activity will lead to increased body weight and BMI (Body Mass Index, which is the ratio of a person's weight in kilograms divided by his/her height in meters squared, i.e. kg/m2 ).

Characteristics of a neighbourhood affect weight

Studies have shown that not only that the amount of food ingested and the extent of physical activity expended are influenced by a variety of factors including genetic, psychological, social, environmental and behavioural, all these factors also seemed to be played out against the particular, immediate, local environmental backdrop in which the individual lives.

Recent studies have examined one level of the local environment, the neighbourhood, as a factor of influence that might contribute to obesity. They found that some features of a neighbourhood such as distance from transportation, good walking venues, supermarkets, sports and recreational facilities, and absence of fast food restaurants can contribute to an individual's healthy body weight.

In addition, there is some evidence that the socioeconomic status of a neighbourhood may also be associated with the prevalence of obesity within that neighbourhood as a whole. Some studies have shown that even the aesthetics of a community, crime rate and unemployment levels can all impact obesity prevalence of a neighbourhood.

A case showing how neighbourhood affects body weight

In an example of such studies, investigators attempt to determine if local neighbourhood factors influenced the overweight (in Canada defined as BMI between 25.0 to 29.9) and obesity (BMI greater than 30) status of their members.

They used statistical and health data collected in 1992 by the Ontario Heart Health Survey of 2,536 individuals in 163 geographical areas of the province of Ontario in Canada, including their BMI and waist circumference (WC; which can signal increased risk for cardiovascular disease).

The environmental circumstance of each individual was determined based on his/her postal code and the profile of that area provided in the Canadian census of 1991.


From their analysis, the investigators concluded that differences in obesity prevalence among different neighbourhoods was not entirely or just due to individual personal factors but were, at least in part, the result of differences in neighborhood circumstancial factors.

Individuals living in an area with higher average dwelling values had the smallest WC while those living in areas with the lowest values had larger WCs. WC also seems to be associated with the percentage of people in an area that had completed secondary school: the lower the percentage, the higher the WC.

This educational level association appeared to be true only for females, suggesting that females may be more sensitive than men to whatever attitudes towards diet and exercise are prevalent in their communities.

The investigators also suggest that in communities with a higher percentage of high school graduates, there may be more social support for healthy living, which women might be more dependent upon compared to men.

Obesity is a problem that can not be treated solely by pills and potions but has social, economic and cultural roots that must be considered.


  • Harrington, D. and Elliott, S. (2009) Weighing the importance of neighbourhood: a multilevel exploration of the determinants of overweight and obesity. Social Science and Medicine 68: 593-600.

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