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US obesity report reveals drastic health inequality between genders and ethnicities

Last week’s US obesity report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed little reward for the health community’s efforts to encourage Americans towards better eating habits and lower weights.

Nationwide, adult obesity was up from 30% in 2003 to 38% in 2014, with the rate slightly higher for women than men.

This gap is attributable to both nature and nurture.

“Women carry more body fat than men, have less muscle mass, and as a result don’t ‘burn’ calories as efficiently,” New York University Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health Marion Nestle told Quartz. “This is especially noticeable as women get older.” (Pregnancy and childbirth don’t help much, either.)

Lifestyle can also play a role, though. “[W]omen may more often be juggling work and managing the home,” David Katz, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, told Quartz over email. (As the New York Times reported last week, that is usually the case in the typical American home—even if men don’t realize it.)

The gap between men and women’s rates of obesity is especially wide when race factors in, as Dr. Lisa Young, author of The Portion Teller pointed out. “The big difference is not among whites but among blacks and Hispanics,” she told Quartz.

The obesity rate among black men was at 37.5%, but for women it stood at 56.9%. Among Hispanics, the difference was smaller, 39% compared to 45.7%, but still apparent.

This gender difference within the black community has been around for decades, Shiriki K. Kumanyika, Emeritus Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine told Quartz. She points to “the way food is promoted in black neighborhoods,” with higher calorie food often more easily available than healthful options. Indeed, food companies peddling unhealthy products spend disproportionately higher amounts to target black communities, found an August 2015 study conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Because women require fewer calories than men, Kumanyika says, eating the same bag of potato chips will have a bigger health impact on a woman than on a man.

In general, she adds, men are more physically active than women. They are more likely to have jobs that require physical activity, plus, as Katz noted, thanks to child care and household duties, women have less time for leisure exercise. While this is true across all demographics, she notes that such imbalances can be especially problematic in some lower-income, predominantly black neighborhoods where parks and recreational centers are scant.

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