The Female-Male Disparity in Obesity Prevalence Among Black American Young Adults

Contributions of Sociodemographic Characteristics of the Childhood Family

Black American young women are much more likely to be obese than their male counterparts if their parents have less education, according to this study of data from a U.S. public health survey. It is unclear whether this disparity arises from distinct gender-related obesity mechanisms or differing obesity-related behaviors.

It has long been known that black women are more likely to be overweight than black men but little is known about factors associated with this disparity. This analysis looked in particular at socioeconomic status, using data about black and white young adults gleaned from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The study surveyed adolescents in grades 7-12 in the mid-1990s and then resurveyed the same responders as young adults seven years later. Data from 2,096 blacks and 5,651 whites was analyzed.

Key Findings:

  • As expected, the rate of obesity was almost 12 percent higher in black women than black men. There was no gender disparity among whites.
  • In black families in which neither parent completed high school, 45.4 percent of young black women were obese, compared to just 16.7 percent of young black men.
  • This prevalence difference dropped sharply as parental education increased, with the disparity between black men and women in families with at least one college educated parent dropping to less than 3 percentage points.
  • In whites, the prevalence of obesity did not vary with any factors as much as parental education did with blacks.

The link between parent education and the gender gap in young black obesity is striking. Young black women from low-education families were at the greatest risk for obesity, while men from low-education families were at the lowest risk. The authors call for future research to explain the cause of this disparity, but note that either obesity development occurs differently in young black men and women or that young black men and women adopt differing obesity-related behaviors due to family or community dynamics.