Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · September 28, 2006

In California… Who’s Obese, Who’s Not, And Why

Socioeconomics Explain Only Small Part of Major Racial/Ethnic/Gender Differences in Obesity

SAN FRANCISCO, California, September 28, 2006 — Californians vary widely when it comes to obesity rates, and only part of the disparity can be explained by the usual suspects – differing social and economic characteristics – according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Adult obesity rates more than doubled in California between 1990 and 2003, surging from 10 percent to 20 percent among both sexes and among all racial and ethnic groups. Blacks are 65 percent – and Hispanics 45 percent – more likely to be obese than whites. Adults living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level are almost 40 percent more likely to be obese than the rest of the population.

Obesity rates are especially high among black and Hispanic women, compared to white women, and higher among white women than Asian women. However, only part of this difference can be attributed to socioeconomic factors such as poverty, access to health care, and employment – or to certain behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and walking. For example, about 39 percent of the higher obesity rate among Hispanic women (compared to whites) is related to such factors. Most of the reasons why the average Hispanic woman and the average black woman are a substantial 18 pounds heavier than the average white woman (all 5’4”) are still unknown. Racial and ethnic disparities also exist for men but are not nearly as glaring.

“A clear portion of the disparity can be explained by some groups living under better social and economic conditions,” says the report’s author, PPIC research fellow Helen Lee. “But the gap between women of different races who have the same socioeconomic profile, and who share many of the same behaviors, remains striking.”

The findings have particular policy relevance in California because of the state’s racial and ethnic composition. For example, Hispanics represent 40 percent of the obese adults in California today and are the fastest growing ethnic group in the state. The study, Obesity Among California Adults: Racial and Ethnic Differences, suggests that – given the economic and social costs of obesity – there is a need for more culturally-tailored, long-term obesity prevention policies and programs.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.