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Race Is Factor In Childhood Obesity

April 7, 2009

Twenty percent of American 4-year-olds are obese, an alarming number that has surprised researchers.

Another striking statistic is that the rate is higher among American Indian children, with nearly a third of them obese.

The study found more than half a million 4-year-olds are obese, and researchers found race does play a factor.

Researchers say obesity is more common in Hispanic and black youngsters, too, but the disparity is most alarming in American Indians, whose rate is almost double that of whites.

“The magnitude of these differences was larger than we expected, and it is surprising to see differences by racial groups present so early in childhood,” said Sarah Anderson, an Ohio State University public health researcher.

Anderson conducted the research with Temple University’s Dr. Robert Whitaker.

The study found almost 13 percent of Asian children were obese, along with 16 percent of whites, almost 21 percent of blacks, 22 percent of Hispanics, and 31 percent of American Indians.

Dr. Glenn Flores, a pediatrics and public health professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, said the research is significant when looking at racial disparities in children’s weight.

“The cumulative evidence is alarming because within just a few decades, America will become a ‘minority majority’ nation,” he said. Without interventions, the next generation “will be at very high risk” for heart disease, high blood pressure, cancers, joint diseases and other problems connected with obesity, said Flores, who was not involved in the new research.

The study examined height and weight information for 8,550 preschoolers born in 2001.

The findings are published in Monday’s Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Anderson called the study the first analysis of national obesity rates in preschool kids in the five ethnic or racial groups.

The researchers did not discuss why there are differences in the racial groups.

However, outside researchers offered plenty of reasons. Flores noted higher rates of diabetes in American Indians, and also Hispanics, which scientists believe may be due to genetic differences.

He said other factors that can increase obesity risks are often more common among minorities, including poverty, educated levels of parents, and diets high in fat and calories.

Jessica Burger, a member of the Little River Ottawa tribe and health director of a tribal clinic in Manistee, Mich., said she has noticed that many children at her clinic are overweight or obese.

She believes one culprit is gestational diabetes, which occurs during a mother’s pregnancy. That increases children’s chances of becoming overweight and is almost twice as common in American Indian women, compared with whites.

Burger also blamed the federal commodity program for low-income people that many American Indian families receive which includes lots of pastas, rice and other high-carbohydrate foods.

“When that’s the predominant dietary base in a household without access to fresh fruits and vegetables, that really creates a better chance of a person becoming obese,” she said.

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