Poverty has been confirmed as a major driver of disproportionate obesity rates among Maori and Pacific pre-schoolers.

New research has suggested that, if Maori and Pacific four-year-olds experienced the same family and neighbourhood conditions as their European counterparts, rates of obesity would drop by half for Maori – and by a third among Pacific kids.

The study, the first of its kind in New Zealand, drew on data from more than 250,000 four-year-olds who underwent a B4 School Check between 2010 and 2016.

The researchers looked for patterns by cross-checking that data with other information about the kids' parents, family, neighbourhood and region.

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"This study provides useful information on why ethnic differences in childhood obesity rates persist in New Zealand," said lead author Dr Nichola Shackleton, of the University of Auckland's quantitative social science centre COMPASS.

"To many people, it will be no surprise that differences in socio-economic position are a main driver of these differences in obesity.

"Our findings highlight the potential health impact of redressing wider inequities in society, and reinforce the need to move beyond individualistic framing of obesity and take a more holistic view."

Shackleton felt the health status of Maori needed to be considered alongside New Zealand's colonial history.

"Power and resources were taken from Maori, who were marginalised by new social systems, based on European norms and values," she said.

"Increased health needs among Maori and their increased experience of deprivation may be a consequence of the repression of indigenous peoples, the confiscation of land and political power, and the breaching of their rights.

"A loss of traditional food gathering places and practices following colonisation, alongside the introduction of new foods such as wheat, negatively impacted food security for Maori and resulted in a loss of traditional knowledge about food practices."

The study, carried out under the A Better Start National Science Challenge, has been published in the International Journal of Obesity.

The challenge's director, Professor Wayne Cutfield, agreed the study highlighted a wider issue that needed addressing.

"The findings suggest that tackling socio-economic disadvantage could significantly reduce disparities in obesity rates, as well as disparities for many related health issues."

BY THE NUMBERS

• Overall, 15.2 per cent of the children in the study were affected by obesity, according to their BMI measure.

• Eleven per cent of European, 20 per cent of Maori, and 33 per cent of Pacific children were affected by obesity, although was no evidence that those disparities were reducing or growing.

• The children's family and neighbourhood conditions – including family make-up, levels of deprivation, rural versus urban and region – accounted for half of the differences in obesity rates between Maori and European children, and a third of the disparity between Pacific and European children.