By Robert Cyr
The decades-old public health problem of growing obesity is still at crisis levels in Latino and black children while showing signs of tapering off overall among young Americans, according to state and national health officials.
While blacks are the most impacted minority group in childhood obesity rates, Latinos are not far behind in a trend that slowly began to burgeon in the 1950s and peaked around 2000, said Liping Pan, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I would say it’s a crisis,” she said. “I think the reason behind it is complex. It could be the dietary patterns, the exercise patterns and the cultural norms. Latino families often believe that being fat is a sign of health, and that also plays a role.”
More than one in five, or 21.2 percent of Latino children between the ages of 2 and 19 in the U.S. are obese, according to the CDC’s most recent data from 2010, compared with a 14 percent rate of obesity among white children in the same age group, Pan said. Black children had the highest obesity rate, at 24.3 percent.
And those statistics only include obese children – other public health statistics that combine the rates of overweight and obese children are significantly higher.
State Department of Public Health 2011 data from Connecticut’s health department puts the rate of overweight and/or obese Latino kindergarteners and third-graders at 43.3 percent, compared with 26.8 percent of their white peers. The study sampled students from 74 elementary schools across the state.
DPH Commissioner Jewel Mullen said the study’s results “further illustrate the alarming rate of childhood obesity, especially among high risk groups such as low-income, black and Hispanic children.”
The state health department works with other state agencies, local health departments, and community leaders to fund and support obesity reduction efforts, said department spokesperson William Gerrish. In 2011, the department was awarded money through the Affordable Care Act to build physical activity-related infrastructure and provide healthy food choices to schools and other groups.
The childhood obesity rate in America for all groups has almost tripled in the past 30 years, according to the CDC. By 2010, about 17 percent of children aged 2-19 years were already obese. The CDC has so far successfully tried to curb the problem, most prevalent in low income households, with education programs geared toward recipients of food stamps and the “WIC” program, Pan said. A recent increase in breast-feeding among low-income families has also helped to improve nutrition for infants and reduce the obesity problem, she said.
While the past decade has seen various measures taken to better nutritional choices at schools – including, in many cases, altogether pulling soda vending machines – the state’s priorities changed significantly after the deadly shootings in Newtown, and previous concerns have taken a back seat, said Werner Oyanadel, interim executive director of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission (LPRAC).
“The state has really moved extremely slowly in my opinion in reference to policies surrounding childhood obesity; we definitely need to do a lot more to help these students get better,” he said. “I have not seen anything in regard to policies that are the forefront at this time here in Connecticut. It’s not a subject we’ve handled in the past few years.”
According to LPRAC data, out of the 482,000 Latinos in the state, 22 percent have no health insurance and 17 percent of Latinos aged 17 and younger live at or below the poverty level. Almost one in five students, or 19 percent of kindergarten through grade 12 students, are Latino.
The National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group, reports that there are more than 16 million Latino children under the age of 18 living in the United States – a number that has increased by 30 percent since 2000 and doubled since 1990. According to the Leadership for Healthy Communities, 38.2 percent of Latino children between the ages of 2 and 19 in 2010 were overweight or obese, compared with 31.7 percent of all children.
By Robert Cyr