A Growing Problem
Minority children are at even greater risk of suffering from obesity than are their white counterparts, says research examining the factors contributing to the national health crisis. In two separate studies published in the journal Pediatrics, experts found that in addition to greater obesity rates in Hispanic and black children, health risks were also higher in these two populations in children as young as three years old. Government data indicates that one in five, or twenty percent, of black and Hispanic children aged 2 to 19 are obese, compared with fifteen percent of white children.
One study, which examined racial disparities and obesity, found that minorities were at a higher risk for nearly every factor contributing to obesity than their white peers. These factors include: mothers smoking during pregnancy; unusually rapid weight gain in young infants; starting solid food before 4 months; mothers' routinely pressuring young kids to eat more; children sleeping less than 12 hours daily between 6 months and 2 years; and allowing very young kids to have sugary drinks, fast-food, and/or televisions in their rooms.
The study, led by Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Elsie Taveras, questioned 1,826 Boston-area mothers, but the researchers contend that the study results are applicable to children all over the nation.
Taveras, who called the study results “striking,” in a public statement, maintained that factors like income and education were accounted for, and race remained an independent factor.
The other study, examining health effects of obesity, 16,000 children aged 1 to 17 who had blood tests during 1999-2006 national health surveys, was led by researcher Asheley Cockrell Skinner of the University of North Carolina.
Skinner and her team found signs of inflammation in obese children as young as three years old, with higher rates of inflammation in Hispanic and black populations.
Inflammation has been linked to a host of chronic maladies, including heart disease. Skinner, who stated publicly that she and her team had been surprised to find evidence of inflammation in such young children.
"We think that fat cells in the body cause inflammation and that inflammation causes vessel damage," Skinner said publicly.
Why are black and Hispanic children at a greater risk for obesity than their white peers?
“Racial and ethnic minority children and children living in poverty are disproportionately more likely to live in communities without safe recreational opportunities—like parks, playgrounds or even safe streets or sidewalks—which more affluent communities take for granted,” says Stacy Collins, MSW, senior practice associate at the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
“Poor communities often have no easy access to fresh, affordable food,” Collins adds. “Entire zip codes in many major U.S. cities lack full-service grocery stores. What these communities do have is a plethora of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, as well as public schools that are heavily reliant on high-fat, federally-subsidized commodities in their school lunch programs.”
Cultural factors that influence obesity rates include high-fat or sugary foods, says FL-based Maribel Quiala, LCSW of the National Latina Health Network.
“Red meats, sweets, and eggs were typically extravagant ingredients that were consumed only in special foods in many of the Latin countries,” she explains. “In the past in many Latin regions people worked in labor-intense jobs and they would do a lot of physical activity daily and meals were prepared fresh daily.”
Times, lifestyles, and the environment have changed, Quiala says. “In this country many of the Latinos are working labor-intense jobs—however, they are not as physically active and are rushing home to grab a quick meal which lacks in nutrients, is full of saturated fats [and comes] from a fast food restaurant—[the food was] probably prepared several hours ago if not days ago.”
Raw foods chef Bryan Au agrees that food should be as fresh and unprocessed as possible. Also citing fast food as well as traditional cuisine—“some cultural foods are the very cause of their obesity”—Au says kids will be “naturally attracted to good health food once it becomes available for them.”
“Minority children need our help, guidance and protection the most as opportunities are not as great for them compared to other children,” he says.
To combat obesity, how families eat and who they eat with is also important, notes Quiala, citing the disappearance of family dinner time as another factor in the epidemic.
“Healthy eating begins at home,” she contends, adding that families should also prepare meals together. “The lack of family time together around the kitchen has also contributed to the disintegration of the meaning of the traditional meal time. Today people are eating alone and within ten minutes most children have swallowed some fast food, which many times is not even properly chewed, [and then] continue playing in their rooms on their computers, x-boxes or other sedentary games."
Citing rising rates of childhood diabetes and cardiovascular disease in minority children, Quiala says that the way people speak about weight in the Hispanic community also needs to change.
“Latino parents many times use words erroneously—a ‘healthy’ overweight infant many times is admired,” she explains. “Latino families many times use the term ‘gordito’ or’ gordita’ in a loving manner—promoting that being fat is okay.”
As the obesity rate continues to climb across all U.S. populations, and the country faces increasingly alarming health challenges, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative may be a step in the right direction.
“As a nation, we should strive to ensure that all families have adequate resources to engage in health-promoting behaviors,” Collins concludes. “NASW supports the First Lady’s campaign, which address childhood obesity as a multidimensional problem, needing solutions at many levels.”
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