Childhood Obesity Is Equal-Opportunity

Eating Navelle NutsAbout three months ago, President Barack Obama made a speech to announce the National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. He has mentioned the National School Lunch Program that currently helps keep 30 million American kids somewhat properly nourished so they can pay attention in school. This is a good thing. Some people feel that it could be accomplished in a different, better way. But preventing children from going hungry is definitely a good thing in itself. When speaking of obesity, the President said,

Particular racial and ethnic groups are more severely impacted, as are certain regions of the country.

This is something that maybe needs to be given more thought. We are talking about the poor, the economically disadvantaged, the unemployed, many of whom are black or Hispanic, or live in certain parts of the country. Their children are more likely to be enrolled in school programs for free or reduced-price lunches.

Also, science finds that the same poverty-stricken black and Hispanic people are more likely to be obese. Question: Are school lunches part of the problem? Or, rather, not the lunches themselves, but something in the food? Fortunately, this is one of the facets of the overall obesity puzzle that’s being looked at.

The American Society of Sports Medicine is the world’s largest organization formed around sports medicine and the science of exercise. It recently engaged a research team composed of scientists from the University of Southern California and the National Institutes of Health to explore the connection between physical activity (or lack thereof) and childhood obesity. The organizations’s press release says,

This work adds to a growing understanding of the complex relationships among physical activity, nutrition, weight management, fitness and health.

The study is titled “Physical Activity in U.S. Youth: Effect of Race/Ethnicity, Age, Gender, and Weight Status.” Kids between six and 11 are twice as active as older kids. Yawn. Males are more physically active than females. Again, yawn. Slightly surprising is the finding that fat boys actually get more exercise than normal-weight girls. Then again, overweight boys generally eat more than normal-weight girls.

On the ethnic front, black kids are the most active, Caucasian kids the least active. No surprise there. The researchers did find something interesting: Members of the most obese ethnic groups are also members of the most active ethnic groups. Britni Belcher, the study’s lead author, said,

Contrary to our expectations, higher levels of physical activity were not associated with lower rates of obesity across the race and ethnic groups.

But there’s the rub. “Across the race and ethnic groups” is like taking an average. The thing is, groups are composed of individuals. There could be a lot of inert, obese individuals in a group, and also a lot of spry, normal-weight individuals. They’re different people, and that wouldn’t necessarily imply anything about the relationship between obesity and activity in general.

The study involved more than 3,000 children over four days, and described four levels of activity, ranging from sedentary to vigorous. The kids’ activity was measured by having them wear accelerometers, and one thing that could have influenced the results was the fact that white, non-Hispanic kids might be more likely to ride bicycles or swim, and those motions are not easily read by an accelerometer as exercise. The report says,

Researchers suggest that general predisposition to obesity, socioeconomic status and cultural differences in behavior may play a role in the study’s findings.

Notice the two equivocal words in that sentence — “suggest” and “may.” Researchers are understandably reluctant to state anything too definitively because there is hardly a case in which something contradictory to the current research might not be revealed by yet more research.

“State of the art” implies that the state may change. But no matter how reticent scientists are in describing their results, the lowest common denominator of journalism will sometimes seize upon the story and assign it a meaning the researchers have never intended. Any finding of this kind can be twisted into an accusation of racism by sensationalists who like publicity. It’s kind of surprising that this one wasn’t.

We have mentioned Dr. John LaPuma’s observation that nearly all native ethnic diets were more healthful than the current standard American diet. Even though the various traditional ethnic foods might not have much in common in other ways, he points out that they share a characteristic, namely, dependence on whole foods and minimally processed foods.

Apparently, the trouble really starts when people abandon their traditional ways and adopt the all-junk, all-the-time method of eating. Obesity does not discriminate. It will come to anyone who invites it, regardless of race, creed, or ancestry. It’s just that some of us are more susceptible.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Presidential Proclamation — National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month,” White House, 09/01/10
Source: “Study Sheds New Light on Childhood Obesity Epidemic,” ASCM.org, 12/06/10
Image by Graham Crumb, used under its Creative Commons license.

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