Childhood Obesity: Genes Only Tell Part of the Story

August 15, 2008

By Rochelle Davis, Founding Executive Director

The recent Time Magazine story, “It’s Not Just Genetics,” does an excellent job of explaining how the problem of childhood obesity “discriminates” by race, geography and economic status with low-income minority populations experiencing the highest rates of childhood obesity:

According to the CDC’s 2006 figures, 30.7 percent of white American kids are overweight or obese, compared with 34.9 percent of blacks and 38 percent of Mexican Americans. It discriminates by income: 22.4 percent of 10-to-17-year-olds living below the poverty line — less than $21,200 for a family of four — are overweight or obese, compared with 9.1% of kids whose families earn at least four times that amount. It discriminates, perhaps most tellingly, by geography, with 16.5% of rural kids qualifying as obese, compared with 14.4% of urban kids, according to the 2003 National Survey of Children’s Health. The poorest states of the South and Appalachia — Arkansas, West Virginia, Mississippi and Kentucky — have the heaviest children. Adult obesity levels triple when you cross north of 96th Street in Manhattan, leaving the mostly white and well-off Upper East Side for the predominantly minority, poorer neighborhood of Spanish Harlem. Even in trim Colorado, there are obesity ‘hot zones.’

The article does a good job of highlighting the environmental factors that contributing to this situation. 

Over the past few decades, the entire American environment has become much more obesogenic, or obesity-supporting. Think of the ever increasing supply of fast-food outlets, where meal sizes have ballooned, or the fact that simple physical activity has been largely eliminated from the daily lives of children, who ride in cars where their grandparents might have walked and entertain themselves with an array of sedentary electronic pastimes that didn’t even exist a generation ago. It shouldn’t be surprising that many overfed, underactive kids lose the battle with their weight. ‘The environmental factors are much more compelling toward obesity than they were 30 years ago,’ says William Dietz, director of the division of nutrition and physical activity at the CDC .’

Healthy Schools Campaign works with parents and community leaders in Little Village and West Town, two of Chicago’s Latino communities, to combat obesity in neighborhoods and schools. Together, parents have formed school wellness teams, petitioned for recess and healthier lunches, and participated in life-changing cooking and exercise classes. They’ve started neighborhood gardens and integrated nutrition education into classroom curricula. The success of parents’ actions highlights how fighting childhood obesity requires sustained effort at school as well as at home.