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Obesity is even more pronounced among black and Mexican children than among whites
OBESITY AMONG all children in the U.S. has reached alarming levels, but according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study (chart, below) the problem is considerably worse for minority populations than for Caucasians. For example, 13.0% of white teenage boys were overweight when the study was released in 2000, while the rate for African-American teenage boys was 20.5%, and for boys of Mexican heritage it was 27.5%.
"If you think about all the environmental risk factors that contribute to this childhood obesity, many are worse in minority and low-income communities," says Shiriki Kumanyika, associate dean for health promotion and disease prevention at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who has studied obesity in minority populations for more than two decades. "You often have poorer availability of healthy food. Cultural and regional food preferences also may be contributors. Schools in lower-income communities often do not have adequate outside play areas, and there are built-in environmental issues like safety and street lighting [that inhibit exercise].
"Recently in Philadelphia we had a young child who was shot during recess. It's difficult to talk to a mother about her child getting outdoor exercise when she's concerned about a drive-by situation."
Two other factors: First, obesity rates are also higher in minority adults than in Caucasians, and the children of obese adults are more likely to be overweight than the children of normal-weight adults. Second, Kumanyika says, "a high rate of obesity is a longstanding situation in several minority populations: Mexicans, Native Americans and adult black women." But among young African-Americans, she says, "it's a more recent trend."
Some minority girls with a history of obesity in their families have turned to sports to help control or reduce their weight. Kasha Ambroise, 16, a junior at John D. O'Bryant High in Boston, is among 35 students from that city who are part of G-Row Boston, a rowing program funded through the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's After School Project. "When I came to the program in 10th grade, I weighed a lot," says Kasha, whose single mother is a native of Haiti. "But when you row every day with your team, three miles down the [Charles] river and three miles back, you can just feel the fat burning off you. I'm so much more fit than I was before. Obesity is a big issue in my family, and this helps me keep it under control."
Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which also funds inner-city after-school programs in Chicago and San Francisco and has involved more than 28,000 children since 2001, says, "Our objective is to help halt the rise of obesity in children by 2015. And with three cities, we're just scratching the surface." --T.L.