The Effect of Poverty on Child Obesity

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Examine the effect of poverty on child obesity through the lens of Karl Marx’s Conflict Theory. For this paper, a focus was placed on examining the link between children in lower-income flower-in communities and an increased occurrence of childhood obesity. The paper reviews current literature on this social problem and provides sociological background information, the global perspective, and future implications utilizing sociological theory.

Literature Review


Many factors can affect a child’s eating habits. Their influence through peers, lifestyle habits, or their family income are just a few factors. For this study, the purpose was to link conflict theory with poverty and obesity in children. The conflict theory, suggested by Karl Marx, claims society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources. It holds that social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than consensus and conformity. According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible, chiefly by suppressing the poor and powerless (Investopedia). Obesity in childhood increases the chances of obesity in adults. An estimated 69 percent of the adults in the United States are now considered overweight or obese whereas an estimated 32 percent of children and adolescents are either overweight or obese (Rolfes, 2013).

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The purpose of this study was to determine the significant correlation poverty has on the overall health of children and how low-income areas have a higher risk of limited resources. Income largely impacts the type of food and the access to healthy choices that children are served on a daily bases. If it were not for the economic setback, then the chances of children living a healthier life with more nutrient-dense foods would be significantly higher. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) has shown that one in six children is obese (Ogden et al., 2012). Conflict theory revolves around concepts of social inequality in the division of resources and focuses on the conflicts that exist between classes (Investopedia).

Prevalence of Obesity

The reason behind an individual’s weight and health is highly influenced by what they ingest. Defined as the lack of proper nutrition, malnutrition can cause an individual to be either underweight or overweight. Both overweight and underweight present health risks. In this study, we will only be focusing on the health risks of being overweight. There’s a 70 percent chance that an overweight adolescent will remain overweight or obese as an adult. Obesity can lead to cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Health Risks Associated with Obesity

The problem of overweight and obesity in childhood is associated with the risk of developing several serious health problems, including diabetes mellitus type II, heart disease, high blood pressure, and increases the risk of obesity in adulthood (Anderson, 2003). Overweight children have the potential of becoming adults with the entire social, economic, and medical ramifications that often accompany obesity. They also have additional problems ascending from differences in their development, physical well-being, and psychological development (Rolfes, 2013). Parental obesity predicts an early increase in a young child’s BMI, and it more than doubles the chances that a young child will become an obese adult (Thompson, 2013). The two dietary practices that have the most substantial effect on an infant’s nutrition are the milk the infant receives and the age at which solid foods are introduced. In children 2-18 years of age, about 40 percent of total energy intake comes from solid fats and added sugars. About half of these empty calories are from soda, fruit drinks, desserts, pizza, and whole milk (Reedy, J. & Krebs-Smith, S. 2010).

The health risk is a major concern within the low-income community. Years of poor diets and the inability to afford health care can leave many in bad situations. Among the main causes of mortality in obese people, cardiovascular diseases like coronary heart disease, hypertension, and heart failure are the most common. Weight loss is suggested for a person who is either obese or overweight and suffering from one of those fatal diseases.

Parenting Impact on Child Obesity

Guardians play an important role in children’s diet because they regulate their access to food and also pass down their genetic makeup. Children are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables when their parents do. The more fruits and vegetables children eat, the more vitamins, minerals, and fiber and the less saturated fat, in their diets (Jones, L. 2010). Many diets are based on one’s culture, heritage, and how readily accessible or convenient it is. In addition, parents who are physically active in their daily lives are more likely to have physically active children compared to parents who live sedentary lifestyles. Often parents focus on issues relating to daily survival such as employment, safety, limited finances, and education take priority over the issues of overweight and obesity. In many families, both parents work outside the home and longer hours. Therefore, more emphasis is placed on fast food and less emphasis on meals prepared in the home. Sedentary activities such as watching television and playing video or computer games occupy much of children’s free time and opportunities for physical activity and outdoor play both during and after school have declined (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). It is unusual for a low-income neighborhood to have access to safe parks, playgrounds, and free public gyms. Neighborhoods may be crime-ridden, and there may be no nearby indoor places for play or exercise. Parental efforts to keep kids safe may increase and encourage indoor activities such as watching TV and playing video games. Unfortunately, families cannot usually afford to pay for organized children’s activities outside of school – and schools in impoverished areas are less likely to run sports or physical activity programs than schools with more resources (The National Academies Press, 2002).

Access to Healthy Food

It is suggested that the compound of obesity and poverty is associated with poor access to fresh food in poor regions. Non-availability of healthy food for the poor is a major cause of increasing obesity among them. The poor often buy the cheapest food, which is often highly processed and referred to as ‘empty calories’ (Levine, 2011). When fresh food from a supermarket or farmers’ market is more expensive than processed or fast food, low-income families are more prone to purchase processed food. By choosing processed foods, their bodies are not receiving the proper nutrients needed to sustain a healthy lifestyle. Food deserts are another setback to the poverty-stricken community. Food deserts are defined as an inner-city area in which it is difficult to find affordable or good-quality fresh food, largely due to a lack of grocery stores or farmers’ markets. Low-income communities frequently lack grocery stores and farmer’s markets where residents can buy a variety of high-quality fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-dairy products. Living in a food desert has been linked to a poor diet and a greater risk of obesity; while people who live near a grocery store are more likely to consume fruits and vegetables and less likely to be obese (Cooksey-Stowers, K. 2017). Residents, especially those without reliable transportation, may be limited to shopping at small neighborhood convenience stores, where fresh and healthy options are limited, if available at all.


To help prevent childhood obesity, we must be sensitive to these concerns and aim to raise the importance of increased physical activity and wholesome nutrition. Health care may not always be an option for some, therefore educating children at a young age on the importance of healthy food choices and physical activity may save them later in life. Studies show that efforts are being made to encourage a healthy lifestyle, proper diet, and physical activity. The effectiveness of these measures is often conditioned by the efforts of families, schools, and the media in raising awareness of human health (World Health Organization). Ways to reach and maintain a healthy weight are to be realistic about energy intake, eat small portions, drink a lot of water, eat high fiber foods, choose healthy fats, limit carbohydrates, and watch for other empty calories.

Sociological Background Information

Sociology is the scientific study of social behavior and human groups. It focuses mainly on the impact of social relationships, people’s attitudes and behavior, and on how societies are established and change (Schaefer, 2009, p. 3). Sociologists utilize creative thinking to understand social behavior. This form of creative thinking is described as sociological imagination which is defined as “an awareness of the relationship between an individual and the wider society, both today and in the past (Schaefer, 2009, p. 3).” By embracing sociological imagination, we can go beyond personal experiences and observations to recognize broader public concerns. It allows us to look beyond a limited understanding of things and to see the world and its people in a new way through a broader lens than we might otherwise use (Schaefer, 2009, p. 4).

Origin of Sociology

Philosophers and religious authorities of ancient and medieval societies expressed numerous interpretations regarding human behavior. They did not test or verify their observations scientifically; nevertheless, those observations often became the foundation for moral codes (Schaefer, 2009, p. 8). In the 18th Century, Philosopher Auguste Comte believed that a theoretical science of society and a systematic examination of behavior were needed to improve society. It was Auguste Comte who coined the term sociology and began examining human behavior.

The Science of Sociology

The term science refers to the body of knowledge obtained by methods based on systematic observation. Like researchers in other scientific disciplines, sociologists engage in the organized, systematic study of phenomena (in this case, human behavior) to enhance understanding (Schaefer, 2009, p. 4).

Social science is the study of various aspects of human society. The social sciences include sociology, anthropology, economics, history, psychology, and political science. These social science disciplines have a common focus on the social behavior of people, yet each has a particular orientation (Schaefer, 2009, p. 4).

The scientific method is a systematic, organized series of steps that ensures maximum objectivity and consistency in researching a problem. Sociologists and other researchers follow five basic steps in the scientific method: (1) defining the problem, (2) reviewing the literature, (3) formulating the hypothesis, (4) selecting the research design and then collecting and analyzing data, and (5) developing the conclusion (Schaefer, 2009, p. 20).

Karl Marx and the Conflict Theory

German philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx (1818–1883), saw society as being made up of individuals in different social classes who must compete for social, material, and political resources such as food and housing, employment, education, and leisure time. Social institutions like government, education, and religion reflect this competition in their inherent inequalities and help maintain the unequal social structure (Openstax CNX).

In Marx’s analysis, society was fundamentally divided between classes that clash in pursuit of their class interests. When he examined the industrial societies of his time, he saw the factory as the center of conflict between the exploiters and the exploited. Marx viewed these relationships in systematic terms; that is, he believed that an entire system of economic, social, and political relationships maintained the power and dominance of the owners over the workers (Schaefer, 2009, p. 11).

Conflict theorists are interested in how society’s institutions may help to maintain the privileges of some groups and keep others in a subservient position (Schaefer, 2009, p. 16). The conflict perspective believes that: (1) society is characterized by tension and struggle between groups; (2) individuals are shaped by power, coercion, and authority; (3) social order is maintained through force and coercion; and (4) social change takes place all the time and may have positive consequences.

Global Perspective of Sociology: Conflict Perspective


Sociology defines culture as something that is learned, such as socially transmitted customs, knowledge, physical items, and accepted behavior. Culture is made up of four parts: (1) norms, (2) values, (3) culture and society, and (4) cultural variation. The Conflict perspective on these four parts of culture is as follows: norms reinforce patterns of dominance; values may perpetuate social inequality; the culture reflects a society’s dominant ideology; and countercultures question the dominant social order (Schaefer, 2009, p. 52).

Family, Gender, and Education

Schaefer’s (2009) text explained that Conflict theorists view the family not as a contributor to social stability but as a reflection of the inequality in wealth and power that is found within the larger society. Feminist and conflict theorists note that the family has traditionally legitimized and perpetuated male dominance (p. 213). Conflict theorists also view the family as an economic unit that contributes to societal injustice. Children inherit the privileged or less-than-privileged social and economic status of their parents. Thus, the socioeconomic status of a child’s family will have a marked influence on his or her nutrition, health care, housing educational opportunities, and in many respects, life chances as an adult (p. 214).

Conflict theorists contend that the relationship between females and males has traditionally been one of unequal power, with men occupying the dominant position (Schaefer, 2009, p. 190). Thus, conflict theorists see gender differences as a reflection of the subjugation of one group by another group (Schaefer, 2009, p. 190).

Conflict theorists view education as an instrument of elite domination. They point to the sharp inequalities that exist in the educational opportunities available to different racial and ethnic groups (Schaefer, 2009, p. 230).

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The Effect Of Poverty On Child Obesity. (2022, May 03). Retrieved from