Childhood Obesity a Pressing Issue for the Latino Community


The foundations for a healthy, happy life are laid in childhood. Unfortunately, too many children begin their lives at a disadvantage, and one of the most prevalent challenges they face in the United States is obesity. This is particularly true within the Latino community, where the problem is acute and has been getting worse. The body of knowledge about the causes and solutions is also growing, but much remains to be done to end this epidemic.

Overall, childhood obesity rates have more than doubled since the 1970s and are continuing to climb, especially in the severely obese category. Overall, about 32 percent of children between the ages of two and 19 are overweight or obese. However, Latino children are at greater risk than their Asian, Black, and White peers—nearly 40 percent of Latino children are overweight or obese. Additionally, one of the most marked increases since 1999 has been in the percentage of Hispanic girls who are severely obese.

This has far-reaching consequences: Overweight or obese children experience a lower quality of life and have higher incidences of depression. Some are also developing type 2 diabetes, which was once an adult-only disease. The relatively early average age that Hispanic girls begin puberty is directly linked to obesity, and makes them more likely to also experience low self-esteem, disruptive behavior, and low academic performance, among other problems.

The issues compound as the children grow, so that overweight or obese children are likely to remain overweight or obese in adulthood, putting them at greater risk for serious chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, cancer, liver disease, and heart disease. And the earlier in life that conditions such as diabetes develop, the harder they are to control.

All of this has big implications for the entire nation. One in five children in the United States is Latino, and this proportion is increasing rapidly: Latinos are expected to comprise 35 percent of the U.S. youth population by 2050. It is estimated that obesity-related medical treatments cost between $147 and $210 billion per year and lead to increased worker absenteeism, as well as higher medical and worker’s compensation claims.

The high rates of childhood obesity are caused by a complex web of factors that affect the environments where children live, study, and play:

Poverty begins to affect children even before birth: low-income women are more likely to be stressed and overweight, and to consume too many sugary foods during pregnancy, all of which increase the risk of obesity in their children. Low-income families also have less budgetary discretion to buy healthy food, opting for cheaper food that is high in calories but low in nutrients. Latino children are disproportionately affected because they are three times more likely than White children to live in poverty.

Lack of physical activity at school and at play also matters. Latino kids get less moderate-level physical activity than their White peers, perhaps because they tend to live near fewer parks and other active spaces. Elementary schools serving primarily Latino populations also offer less recess or physical education opportunities.

Family life and culture may play an even bigger role than socioeconomics or eating and exercise habits when it comes to explaining disparities in obesity among different ethnic or racial groups, some studies suggest. Certain Latino family practices that are passed down through generations but increase the risk for obesity include introducing solid foods to babies at an early age. Conversely, exclusive breastfeeding can protect children against obesity, but is less prevalent among Latina mothers.

–Media exposure is yet another factor. Because they represent an increasingly valuable marketing segment, Latino kids have greater exposure to junk-food marketing, and this exposure has been shown to influence eating habits.

It may take a village to make healthy habits more accessible and desirable in the Latino community, but childhood obesity is an issue we can’t afford to ignore. We’ll examine the primary risk factors in more detail—as well as efforts to stem the tide—in forthcoming blog posts.

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