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Social class has major influence on teenagers' diet and weight

06 May 2009 Hertfordshire, University of

Research just released by academics at the Universities of Hertfordshire and Edinburgh has revealed that differences in social class influence the eating habits, weight and health of young people.

The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and entitled Parents’ and Teenagers’ Conceptions of Diet, Weight and Health: Does Class Matter, was led by Dr Wendy Wills at the University of Hertfordshire’s Centre for Research in Primary and Community Care (CRIPACC) in conjunction with researchers at the University of Edinburgh.

“This study has shown that experiences and conceptions relating to diet, weight and health are driven by class-based distinctions and tastes,” said Dr Wills. “It shows that working-class practices are based on a need to ‘get by’ which impedes a future-orientated outlook, whereas the middle classes are able to prioritise future-relevant behaviours relating to diet, weight and health because of their more socially and economically secure family lives. These findings are important in helping us to understand why inequalities in diet, health and weight continue to persist.”

Young people aged 13-15 years were interviewed for the research; half of those selected were overweight or obese. Parents were also interviewed.

Findings were compared with an earlier study of the same design which the researchers had previously conducted with families from lower social class groups.

The researchers found that most of the middle-class parents and teenagers interviewed expressed few worries about their daily lives, had few concerns about money and they assumed that they would be able to make choices and fulfil their aspirations in life.

On the other hand, the lives of the working-class families in the previous study, were characterised by risk, insecurity and a strong focus on the ‘here and now’ where ‘getting by’ takes priority over diet and weight.

Other key findings were that teenagers developing autonomy in relation to being able to make their own food decisions were important markers of ‘being’ working class; that middle-class families displayed their aspirations about the future through expecting young teenagers’ tastes to diversify and their bodies to be active and ‘thin’ enough to participate in adult life and that working-class families, whilst sometimes displaying a desire to invest in their children, simply do not have the capital required to make such changes to lives lived in the context of risk and insecurity.

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