Child Obesity Epidemic Disproportionately Impacts Hispanics

New findings that one-third of the world's adults, 1.46 billion people, are overweight or obese is shocking, especially as it coincides with efforts to improve food stability in struggling nations.

Here in America, just like the trend in adult obesity, where Hispanic Americans have a higher rate of obesity than non-Hispanic whites; Hispanic children are more likely to be obese than their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

The food children eat is certainly a culprit in what is now a global epidemic. In the U.S., food advertising on Spanish-language television is more likely to promote nutritionally-poor food than English-language advertising, hindering Hispanic children. And while the Obama Administration has expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known food stamps, and rebranded it as a nutrition program, recent reports suggest that its unlikely that the program can fund and encourage healthy foods alone, especially with recent cuts that took effect late last year. Kids are eating worse and worse, and their government is doing little to help. Sounds a bit like their parents.

But perhaps more startling than poor diet is how little children move today. In a one mile run, children today are about a minute and a half slower than children 30 years ago. American children's cardiovascular endurance declined about 6% per decade between 1964 and 2010 in the U.S. according to a presentation at a recent meeting of the American Heart Association. The lead author stated that the reason for this decline is simple, that children are carrying too much body fat, making it more difficult for them to move. They are not alone, this also afflicts their parents. More than half of Hispanic adults do not meet the federal physical activity guidelines, and if we fail here, it is no surprise that our children also do.

I am a Hispanic mother, my research focuses on racial and ethnic disparities in care, and I have a Masters in Public Health, and even I--knowing all of the health consequences of physical inactivity--find it hard to achieve the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended 60 minutes a day of physical activity for my child. The realities of cooking dinner, cleaning, homework, and getting my daughter ready for bed get in the way of family physical activity in the evenings. Plus, as a Miami-native, I find the cold, darkness of the Chicago winter, particularly amidst the much discussed polar vortex, uninviting.

I have far fewer barriers to physical activity than many of my Hispanic counterparts; I live in a safe neighborhood, with plentiful sidewalks and parks, and yet I struggle. Finding a venue for physical activity outside the home is vital, but also difficult for many. Like with healthy food, Hispanic children in the U.S. face greater challenges to physical activity than non-Hispanic children do. One study found that for many Hispanic communities, there is not the same access to recreational spaces for physical activities as there are in non-Hispanic white neighborhoods. Also, school is a prime space for kids to incorporate exercise into their lives, but not all school children are encouraged or required to participate in robust physical activity there. In fact, Hispanic children may be less likely to receive the same amount of physical activity at school as non-Hispanic white children. This disadvantage clearly carries into adulthood.

The increased health risks of childhood obesity are well-documented--type 2 diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and even sleep apnea. More importantly, many of these obese children will go on to become obese adults. This obesity epidemic underlies many of the health disparities that affect the Hispanic community.

If children learn inertia from their parents, then their parents can also be the best path to how to change this fate. Therefore, creative solutions to combating the obesity epidemic are vital. On Thanksgiving, my daughter ran in the Turkey Trot in Miami. I helped her "train" for it because I wanted to show my daughter that physical activity is important and that I am committed to teaching her good habits. But running is not for everyone, and physical activity comes in many forms. Hopefully with increased awareness, we can reduce the obesity epidemic in our community for the health of our children. But Hispanic American parents must step in to lead the way.