Ethnic obesity divide already evident in four year olds: Study

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Obesity

A fifth of American four year olds are obese but the proportion is greatest amongst American Indian four year olds, of whom one in three is obese, according to a new study.

It is already known that obesity – and therefore prevalence of related illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes – varies between different ethnic groups in the US. But the researchers set out to examine how significant these differences are amongst pre-school children, claiming: “National estimates of obesity prevalence among preschool children have never been reported for American Indian/Native Alaskans or Asians.”

The authors suggest the data could help design more targeted public health programs, which includes healthy eating.

The results were published in the latest Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

They found there were also high rates of obesity amongst black and Hispanic four year olds, but American Indian and Native Alaskan children were twice as likely to be obese than their Asian or white counterparts.

Obesity prevention

Professor of epidemiology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study Sarah Anderson said: “This is certainly not about stigmatizing any particular subgroups. I think if we understand better how it is that these racial/ethnic disparities have come to be at such a young age, that can help us to design obesity prevention programs that will be useful before children enter school.”

The study is an analysis of height and weight data for a nationally representative sample of 8550 children born in 2001, who participated in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study in 2005. They were divided into five mutually exclusive ethnic groups, and obesity was defined as those children with a Body Mass Index at or above the 95th percentile for age according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) growth charts.

However, the researchers did not examine possible reasons for the disparity across ethnic groups.

Public health research

Anderson suggested that more research needs to be done to better understand how and/or whether lifestyle differences in households of different ethnicities or within broader communities might influence obesity.

“It’s important from a public health perspective to have data on the characteristics and health of the population and of different subgroups in the population because there’s a focus on racial/ethnic disparities in the United States in terms of the long-term health consequences,”​ she said.

“Because obesity is so strongly related to many of those later health outcomes, it’s important to understand descriptively what the prevalence of obesity is in these different race/ethnicity groups.”

The study found that 31.2 percent of American Indian or Native Alaskan children were obese, compared to 22 percent of Hispanics, 20.8 percent in blacks, 15.9 percent of whites and 12.8 percent in Asians.

Latest CDC figures show that more than a third of American adults are obese, and also show differences across the ethnic spectrum. It says that approximately 30 percent of white adults are obese, 45 percent of black adults and 37 percent of Mexican American adults.

Source: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine​, April 2009 (Vol. 163, No. 4), pp. 344-348.

“Prevalence of Obesity Among US Preschool Children in Different Racial and Ethnic Groups”

Authors: S. E. Anderson, R. C. Whitaker.

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