Childhood obesity is linked to multiple environmental factors, USC researchers find in new study


Childhood obesity, after multiple studies on its genetic and environmental factors, has since passed the image of a “lifestyle” disease. Traffic pollution, the urban-rural difference, and family dynamics were some of the many topics studied individually to have associated health risks.

However, USC and the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) have published one of the first studies to provide a comprehensive profile of several environmental factors linked to childhood obesity.

Explore exposure factors in context with each other

“People aren’t exposed to a single chemical in their lifetime,” said Dr. Lida Chatzi, associate professor of preventive medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. “With this in mind, we try to understand the totality of environmental exposures.”

The main risk factors? Smoking during pregnancy and air pollution. In combination with a person’s constructed habitat, air pollution correlates with the highest rates of childhood obesity and body mass index.

Compared to previous analyses, the study manages to examine air pollution in the context of other environmental variances. For example, they spend part of the study examining specific socio-economic factors and urban development. A high BMI correlates with densely populated areas. But BMI was lower in areas with more concentrated resources: businesses, community services, educational institutions, restaurants, stores, etc.

A recent study links air pollution to childhood obesity, along with other factors such as smoking, age, and population density. Exposome exploration aims to comprehensively plot exposure factors on the genome. Image by USDAgov is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Presentation of the exposome

USC and ISGlobal collected data on women and their children from pregnancy through a collaborative longitudinal research project known as the Human Early Life Exposome (HELIX) study. The researchers studied a group of around 1,300 children aged 6 to 11 in 6 European countries: France, Greece, Lithuania, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom.

The study is based on what scientists call “the exposome”, a complete characterization of exposure risks on the genome. Dr. Martine Vrijheid, research professor at ISGlobal, hopes that by completing the exposome, they can shed light on the important links between “public health implications…and the modification of environmental exposure in early life. “.

“This is one of the first studies that actually manages to measure so many different variables and so many factors in the environment and then tries to analyze them all together,” Vrijheid published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Jessica Xing

Jessica is a New York-based writer, with bylines at Vox and EGMNOW. You can present her stories to Jessica [at]


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