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26 Health and well-being


teenage diet


Class divide in


Obesity is a public health ticking time bomb. Obesity levels in young people have been soaring for decades. Trends point to a widening class divide, with rates among working- class families likely to rise more sharply than those in middle-class families. This socio-economic gap may be partly due to difficulties in reaching and getting health messages across to working-class families.


Qualitative research by a team from our Centre for Research in Primary and Community Care (CRIPACC) sheds light on this growing problem. Parents’ and Teenagers’ Conceptions of Diet, Weight and Health: Does Class Matter?, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is the first study of its kind. It reveals the ideals and beliefs of both family life and parenting by looking at the diet, weight and health of middle- class teenagers and their parents, and comparing them with an earlier study of working-class families.


Dr Wendy Wills, who led the research, explains how children are moulded according to their parents’ expectations about behaviour:


‘Middle-class parents are concerned that if their children were to be overweight they would not only have poor health in later life, but that it would affect their self-esteem and ability to take part in life’s opportunities. In contrast, working- class parents are more concerned with the here and now. Simply ‘getting by’ has to take priority over diet and weight. Although they may want to improve their children’s diet and lifestyle, these parents may lack the knowledge, social opportunities and money to make the necessary changes.’


This difference in parents’ attitudes plays out at a practical level. Whereas middle-class parents tend to supervise and control young teenager’s food choices on a daily basis, children from working-class families are more likely to make their own food choices.


Turning the tide on the growing problem of teenage obesity demands a better understanding of young people’s attitudes to health and their eating habits. Our research into the role social class plays in diet is helping policy-makers to develop healthy-living initiatives for families from disadvantaged backgrounds.


These and other findings from the study have proved important in understanding why inequalities in diet, health and weight continue to persist. The team’s research is now helping to shape health policies. NHS Health Scotland has used the study in implementing healthy weight initiatives for children, and the Department of Health has drawn on the project’s research to develop its Healthy Living social marketing programme.


‘We will only turn the tide on teenage obesity for good if everyone – government, families and the food industry – plays their part. We must try and make it easier for all families, but particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to make informed, healthier choices about food, and to have more opportunities to take part in sport and exercise. However, given the complex, embedded nature of familiar practices and beliefs,’ says Dr Wills, ‘policy and practice targets need to be realistic in terms of the timescale needed for achieving change.’


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