The Dangers of Childhood Obesity

The taunts started in fifth grade, when Fabio McCraw, who stood all of 5-foot-6, hit 200 pounds. “Hey, Fatio!” the kids would yell. “What size bra do you wear?” Fabio’s mother, Sandra Perez, recalls him coming home crying on many days. To her, it seemed as though the problem had come out of nowhere, that Fabio had ballooned overnight. Looking back now, though, she recognizes the slow progression of pounds and the chronically unhealthy—but all too common—habits that packed them on: all-day snacking on candy and drinking of sodas; a near complete lack of interest in sports unless it was an Xbox game; and a daily after-school stop at the fast-food joint near home. “I’d be cleaning his room and I’d find candy wrappers, sodas, Cheetos,” recalls Sandra, of San Diego, California. “I kept warning him, ‘You’re going to be overweight.’ But I didn’t have control of it. I was working all the time, and he wasn’t listening to me.”

While childhood obesity affects one in every six non-Hispanic white children between 2 and 19, in Mexican Americans that number is one in five, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And research shows that, unlike in adults, an increased family income does not reliably predict a reduced risk for obesity in children. The fact is that just about everybody is vulnerable—even a boy like Fabio, whose mother works as a doctor counseling parents about the dangers of childhood obesity.

The problem is so severe that experts now predict that if current trends continue, about half of all the Latino babies born in 2000 will develop diabetes—a disease often directly linked to being overweight—as adults. They will also be more likely to develop high blood pressure, heart and kidney disease. “Our children are at the forefront of this disease,” says Elena M. Alvarado, president of the National Latina Health Network. “This country is in crisis mode.”

How Did This Happen?

There’s no simple answer.

Playing a big part in this epidemic is the environment. Suburban communities suffer from a lack of sidewalks and parks that encourage walking and urban areas are often plagued with violence. To make matters worse, many time—and money—strapped schools across the country have reduced or eliminated recess and physical education classes. And once they’re home, as any parent can attest to, kids are seduced by video games, TV and computers. In fact, more than 50 percent of Mexican American children spend three hours or more a day watching TV, compared to 37 percent of non-Hispanic white children, according to a 2001 study. The result? A generation that barely moves.

Then there’s the matter of food. While some states are starting to crack down on fast food, junk food and soft drinks at public schools, the lunches offered there still often don’t include healthy options. There’s also no ignoring what some call “the Americanization” of Latino families as a factor. Studies show that first-generation Latino immigrants and the Latino children of parents who spoke Spanish at home are more inclined to both eat healthier—consuming more rice, fruits and vegetables and less saturated fats—and watch less TV than those born in the United States or whose parents exclusively use English at home. It’s “the culture of America,” says Dr. Onelia G. Lage, an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. “You move fast, Mom and Dad work—the fast-food concept settles in.”

There’s one more scary factor. Researchers are starting to believe that some Latino kids are genetically wired to be overweight. At the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, researchers have collected DNA from 1,000 Latino children and their parents to explore whether they have a particular genetic tendency toward obesity. The study’s principal researcher, Nancy Butte, Ph.D., says that variants of certain genes may appear more frequently in Latinos. If your child has these genetic traits, he isn’t doomed, she says; he just has to work harder to stay slim.

So what’s really at stake? Overweight children are more likely to develop asthma, high cholesterol, hypertension, sleep apnea, orthopedic problems, depression and diabetes. One disease drawing a lot of concern is Type 2 diabetes, which has increased in all kids, but particularly Latinos. Virtually unknown in children 10 years ago, Type 2 diabetes, which was once known as adult-onset diabetes, puts kids at risk for hypoglycemia, blindness, nerve damage and other health problems, not to mention a tragically shorter lifespan.