March 3, 2010 / 2:52 AM / in 8 years

Obesity hits New York's poorest neighborhoods hardest

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - New York City’s obesity rate has climbed in recent years, but with lower income neighborhoods hit hardest while wealthier areas like Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Chelsea remain slim, a new study found.

<p>A competitor prepares to go in front of judges at a casting call for the second season of the reality television programme "Dance Your Ass Off", during which overweight or obese contestants hope to lose weight by dancing, in New York December 18, 2009. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly</p>

Researchers from New York University and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, found between 2003 and 2007, the prevalence of obesity citywide increased to 22 percent from 20 percent but with large variations in neighborhoods.

That was still lower than national and statewide rates, which stood at roughly 27 percent and 25 percent around the same time.

In more affluent areas, like the Upper East Side, Chelsea and the West Village, obesity rates hovered around 8 percent across the period of the study that is published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

In contrast, obesity was a more common and growing problem in other city neighborhoods, many of which are lower-income.

In 2003, only one neighborhood -- East Harlem -- had an obesity rate higher than 30 percent. By 2007, six neighborhoods had joined it -- three in the Bronx, the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Rockaway in Queens and northern Staten Island.

Researcher Dr. Jennifer Black from the University of British Columbia said understanding neighborhood-by-neighborhood variations could help in efforts to combat obesity as obesity rates balloon across the United States.

“If we can figure out what types of neighborhood characteristics make it easier for people to make healthy choices, and what kinds of factors are barriers to good health, we will be able to come up with more effective interventions,” Black told Reuters Health.

“(This may) help people maintain a healthy body weight and reduce their risks of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”

Black and colleague James Macinko, of New York University, found that neighborhoods with a wider variety of food stores and more fitness centers were associated with lower obesity rates. The finding does not prove that better food selections and gyms prevent obesity.

“But what this study does tell us is that substantial differences (in obesity) exist between neighborhoods with different levels of access to food and fitness amenities,” said Black.

She said such neighborhood features remained linked to obesity even when the researchers accounted for factors like residents’ age, race and education levels, which were gathered from an annual health survey that covered more than 48,000 New Yorkers in 34 city neighborhoods.

The researchers noted that New York City recently launched a “Green Cart” program designed to offer lower income residents a better selection of fresh produce.

The city made available 1,000 new permits for mobile carts selling raw fruits and vegetables to be set up in specified “underserved” neighborhoods in the city’s five boroughs.

Reporting by Amy Norton from Reuters Health, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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