Inequality, Race, and Obesity

In 1966, speaking to the press before addressing the Medical Committee for Human Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said something that is often slightly misquoted, but this is the correct version:

Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.

Half a century later, Dr. Joe Herbert wrote “The Scandal of Inequality and Its Effect on Mental Health,” in which he says that the difference between rich and poor is wider in the United States than in any European country:

The top 1 percent now has about a fifth of the total income: an average salary of around $6.7 million. For the bottom 90 percent, it’s $34,000.

Income, or more to the point, poverty, is very much linked to race in America. Dr. Herbert says that when people feel entitled to call themselves civilized, sophisticated and caring — as Americans do — “there is a point at which inequality becomes morally and ethically unacceptable.”

A comprehensive study encompassing the years 1999-2016 threw light on some important tendencies and trends. Several co-authors pored over data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and added to the general fund of knowledge by detailing the prevalence of America’s obesity (and severe obesity), according to age and race/ethnicity. Here is a frightening quotation:

Despite significant public health initiatives, obesity and severe obesity continue to increase, with a sharp increase being noted in preschool-aged children.

This is of course so alarming because the earlier a child starts to become overweight, the more difficult it is to reverse. It’s great for kids to have a head start in many areas of life, but not gaining weight.

In this study of a decade’s worth of information, the researchers found that “White and Asian American children have significantly lower rates of obesity than African American children, Hispanic children, or children of other races.” In their Conclusions, the team wrote,

Groups that are historically disenfranchised are affected the most by this epidemic, predicting increased morbidity across a lifetime.

They also pointed out that, sadly, everybody’s numbers had increased since the last cycle, and furthermore, any previously reported improvements in the stats for younger children could not be relied upon as they were “either an anomaly or transient.”

Another team studied only the last two years of that cycle, 2015-2016. They sorted people into sub-groups, and found:

The overall prevalence of obesity was higher among non-Hispanic black and Hispanic adults than among non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic Asian adults. The same pattern was seen among youth.

Compared to a white kid, a young person of Hispanic ancestry is about twice as likely to be obese, and that goes for girls as well as boys. Sometimes it is helpful to state a thing in more than one way, so here are alternatives from another source:

25.8%, or more than one in four Latino children ages 2 to 19 had obesity.
22.0% of Black children ages 2 to 19 had obesity
White children had a lower prevalence of obesity (14.1%)

In September of last year, reported,

According to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 18.5 percent of children and 39.6 percent of adults had obesity in 2015-2016. These are the highest rates ever documented by NHANES. Those numbers suggest more than 93 million Americans are obese.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Getting Martin Luther King’s words right,”, February 2018
Source: “The Scandal of Inequality and Its Effect on Mental Health,”, 11/17/18
Source: “Prevalence of Obesity and Severe Obesity in US Children, 1999–2016,”, 11/30/17
Source: “Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015-2016,”, October 2017
Source: “National Obesity Rates & Trends,”
Source: “A Startling New Report on America’s Obesity Problem,”, 09/14/18
Image by CDC

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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