Bad times, slimmer children?

On January 21, Judit Vall Castelló from the Centre for Research in Health and Economics (Pompeu Fabra University) gave a conference at the PRBB invited by the CREAL. She talked about her last study on the effect of business cycle conditions on children’s weight.

She explained that the majority of the research connecting recessions with body-weight has so far focused on adults or babies. In adults, most of the literature finds a link between better economy and weight increase, which would suggest that recessions are “good” for adult’s health. But, is it the same for children?

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Spain is one of the ten countries of the OECD with a higher prevalence of infant overweight – about 25% of children aged 5 to 17.  Children’s obesity rates represent an important public policy issue as a number of short-term adverse effects and risks have been associated with obesity in the early stages of life. For example, obese children have a greater risk of being bullied and they are more likely to stay obese into adulthood, therefore having a higher probability of suffering certain chronic diseases later in life.

The relationship between the business cycle conditions and children’s weight is not in the political agenda of Spanish politicians, it’s an unexplored topic on the scientific literature about children, and it has relevant consequences in the short and long-term. These were the main motivations for Vall Castello’s research.

Her team used data from 8 waves (1987-2012) of the Spanish National Health Survey. The pooled sample contained 37,562 observations of children between the ages of 2 and 15 years old.

She explained to an attentive audience how their strategy takes advantage of the variation in the unemployment rate across regions and survey years to look for potential effects. They used the regional unemployment rate as a proxy for the business cycle phase at the local level.

The researchers found that an increase in the unemployment rate is associated with lower obesity incidence, especially for children under 6 years old and over 12 years old – similarly to what was known in adults. A decrease in obesity is actually good news, but what happens to the other extreme of the population, the ones that were already underweight when the economy was good?

They found that negative economic conditions increased the prevalence of infant underweight, particularly for those under 6. So, an increase in the unemployment rate shifts the entire weight distribution to the left, decreasing the probability of suffering obesity and overweight but at the same time increasing the probability of being underweight for children under 6 and children over 12.

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There is a positive correlation between unemployement and the prevalence of infant underweight

Vall Castello was also interested in the possible channels through which the economy could be impacting infant underweight and obesity, such as changes in the nutritional composition of the children’s diet or in the frequency of exercise.

Their results suggest that an increase in the local unemployment rate may be linked to a decrease in the probability of following a Mediterranean Diet, which is considered as one of the healthiest dietary options. More worryingly, this negative correlation was most significant for children under 6 years old.

Since compulsory education starts at age 6 in Spain – and, for most children, it includes lunch at school – this research seems to point out just how important it is to ensure that all children, regardless of their parents’ economic situation, have at least one balanced meal a day, and the key role schools play in this.

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A report by Mari Carmen Cebrián 

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