Child Obesity in the Latino Community

To the school nurse, there is no question that "Roni," a cherub-faced third-grader who tips the scales at more than 90 pounds and stands under four feet tall, is obese. At recess, she struggles to keep up with her classmates in a simple game of tag—panting near exhaustion and calling "time out" early and often.

"The poor baby has it bad," says Carla Hostos, part-time nurse for Roni’s Newark, N.J., school district. "Problem is, her mom thinks those rolls are baby fat. She insists that back in her country no one wants their kid to be skinny and sickly looking. What can you do?"

Health professionals, policy makers and pundits across the country are asking the same question: What can you do? But the problem takes on heightened urgency within our community. Roughly half of all Latino preschool and school-aged children are overweight or obese, says Denice Cora-Bramble, MD, co-director of the Obesity Institute at Children’s Medical Center in Washington. "Where the medical community sees a fat child at risk, [Latino] parents see a chubby one who will 'grow into their size.' I was born in Puerto Rico I understand the mentality…and it's troubling.”

Latino kids are not alone. In the past 30 years, the rate of obesity among all children has tripled in the United States—reaching epidemic proportions. But poorer populations like African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected due to a range of social, economic, environmental—some say, even genetic—factors. And health professionals agree that the child obesity problem in our community is a daunting one. Dr. Cora-Bramble says it seems that "becoming more American" often leads to becoming overweight and less healthy. For most Latinas, fresh fruits and vegetables were widely available and affordable in their country of origin. Children played outside; not behind video screens. And home cooked meals, rather than sugar and fat-laden fast foods, were the norm.

To effectively combat childhood obesity, there is much work needed on a policy level. For example, kids in most urban communities do not have access to safe play areas. Still, there is a great deal families can do to promote active, healthy lifestyles. The American Association of Pediatrics offers practical advice like limiting screen time for kids; eating together as a family; and increasing kids’s intakes of calcium and fiber. "Let's be real, the Latino diet is high in starch and fat," says Dr. Cora-Bramble. "Some of our habits have to change."

She notes that the Obesity Institute is looking at kids and obesity from all angles to come up with resources. Some of its tools include an interactive "Portion Distortion" quiz, which educates parents on healthy meal sizes and options.

For kids like Roni in Newark, obesity doesn't come overnight. And the scale is not the primary indication of a problem. Instead, it is a measure called Body Mass Index (BMI)—a calculation that uses height and weight to estimate a child’s fat level. Healthy BMI ratios are different for children than adults. A special chart in a pediatrician’s office (or this one produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is most accurate. There are also early signs that often indicate a child is on the road to obesity, including:

  • Parental obesity
  • High birth weight
  • Rapid weight gain in the first year of life

There is plenty of good news, though. Nurse Hostos in Newark says, "When you have the First Lady and high-profile people talking about the problem, change will come over time… At least we're talking about it."

How do you help your child stay healthy?