Young Latino children from immigrant households face greatest obesity risk, study finds

Latino children in Spanish-speaking households are at greatest risk for obesity, according to a UCLA study that used federal data to calculate growth trajectories for 15,000 youngsters from the nation's largest racial and ethnic groups. 

Latino children from Spanish-speaking families showed the sharpest increases in their body mass index (BMI) between ages 4 and 6, followed by African American children, Latinos from English-speaking households, whites and Asians, the study found. BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.  

Being overweight or obese is becoming more and more common among young children and racial minorities. About 25% of children living in the U.S. between the ages 2 and 5 years are overweight and young Latino children from immigrant families are disproportionately affected by overweight and obesity, putting them at a greater risk for health problems and diseases.

Soda and fast food consumption in early childhood were strongly associated high BMI scores, the study found. Researchers said the finding was troubling because children that grow up eating high-calorie, low-nutrient foods may develop poor eating habits as adults. 

The study used longitudinal data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort, which provides information on race and ethnicity, as well as BMI and family attributes, including income, parental education, and dietary consumption, when children are 9, 24, 48, 60 and 72 months old. Investigators used a statistical model to determine growth trajectories. 

At age 4, Latinos from Spanish-speaking households had the highest BMIs, followed by Latinos in English-speaking households, African Americans, whites and Asians, the study found.  But Latino children from immigrant households and African American children had steeper growth trajectories. So by age 6, African American children had the second-highest BMIs, next to children from Spanish-speaking homes. 

Very low birth weight, higher maternal education level, residing in a two-parent household, and breastfeeding during infancy were associated with lower BMI growth trajectories, according to the study. While soda and fast food consumption were associated with higher BMI growth trajectories for all children, soda was a particularly strong predictor of higher BMI growth for young African American and Latino children.

Possible additional risk factors for early childhood weight differences among Latinos compared to whites include low maternal education, higher rates of maternal depression, early introduction of solid foods, restrictive feeding practices, physical inactivity, and beverage and fast food consumption patterns, according to the study, which was published online in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities in May 2015. 

Easy access to inexpensive fast food, combined with a tendency on the part of immigrant parents to indulge their children, may also help explain the unhealthy weight gain in Latino children in Spanish-speaking households according to the study.

"I like to think of health conditions from an ecological perspective," Dr. Alma Guerrero, the lead investigator, said.  "If we're talking of children and their weight status, we look at the immediate factors in that child's life, such as their parents' weight status, their parents' eating habits, or their parents' activity practices. We also look at neighborhood factors such as access to parks, fast food, or even Boys & Girls Club programs.

"When we are talking about Spanish Latina moms, which we use as a proxy for low acculturation or meaning a more recent immigrant, we may be seeing different triggers or stressors in this population that may also play a role such as isolation, being away from family, or being in a different country or neighborhood where you don't have as strong of a support system," she said. Her study was supported by a CTSI K Bridge Award, which funds research likely to lead to an NIH K Award.

Dr. Guerrero is currently testing an intervention to prevent Latino children ages two to five from becoming overweight or obese. Her intervention involves meeting with parents and grandparents over a two- to four-week period to teach parenting techniques, such rewarding children with praise instead of food. To help keep kids physically active, she encourages parents to play with their kids and to limit the time toddlers spend in strollers. Dr. Guerrero is currently testing her intervention, which is funded by an NIH K23 award, philanthropy, and grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity, in a lower income neighborhood in East Los Angeles.  

"I tell a lot of the parents I work with that healthy habits lead to healthy weight. It's pretty rare to find a family that practices healthy dietary habits and not include the physical activity practices," Dr. Guerrero said "It's not just the knowledge, but perhaps the knowledge with the resources and your motivation can help you engage in healthy habits."

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Amjad Murdos is a third-year UCLA undergraduate from Rochester, Minn. He is studying psychobiology.

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