Culture, Economics, Ethnicity, and Childhood Obesity

Fiesta Food

Childhood Obesity News has been looking at how ideas about food and physical characteristics vary among people from different backgrounds. As Jerry Jeff Walker says, “Life is mostly attitude and timing.” If someone’s psyche has been marked by privation, she or he might very well believe that a chance to eat should never be neglected. It creates an attitude of “There is never enough.” If a young mother is part of a culture whose prevailing belief is that fat babies are the best, she is under enormous pressure to fatten up her babies.

ScienceDaily talks about a study published in the current Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. The subjects were from the socio-economic group participating in WIC, the government program designed to make sure that low-income expectant mothers, babies, and small children are adequately nourished. When it comes to assessing the relative obesity of their young children, mothers from this group are wearing virtual blinders, consisting possibly of some kind of cultural filter.

An overly plump baby may signify excellent parenting skills and an appropriate level of love. Yet when children are successfully plumped up, mothers perceive them as thinner than they really are. The report, from Erin R. Hager and others at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is quoted:

Mothers of overweight toddlers were more than 88 percent less likely to accurately perceive their child’s body size… [N]early 70 percent of mothers were inaccurate in assessing their toddler’s body size when selecting a silhouette that correctly reflected their child’s true body size.

Edward Abramson, Ph.D., notes that since the 60s, when American kids started ballooning up, Jewish kids have fared even worse, statistically, in terms of childhood obesity. Despite the heavy pressure of tradition, he offers hope:

Heavy meals are a part of many Jewish holidays and celebrations. There’s an old joke that most Jewish holidays celebrate that someone tried to kill us, we won, so let’s eat! […] With Shabbat dinners, Passover seders, jelly doughnuts at Chanukah, etc., there’s ample opportunity for our kids to pack on the pounds… Despite the rich foods associated with many Jewish traditions, parents can help their children to a healthy weight without diets and the increased risk of an eating disorder.

For Minnesota Public Radio, Elizabeth Baier profiled 10-year-old Samantha Flores, one of America’s 40% of Latino children who qualify as overweight or obese. Samantha’s mother Raquel Flores is totally into home cooking, but says her kids don’t like the traditional meals she cooks. They want things like macaroni and cheese and, of course, pizza. And she admits to buying what the children want, including snack foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. Baier writes:

In part, the problem stems from low levels of family income and education. More Latino children — 6.1 million — lived in poverty in 2010 than any other racial or ethnic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Poor families like Samantha’s tend to stretch their budgets by buying fewer fresh fruits and vegetables and more high-calorie, low-cost convenience food, like sodas, candy and cereal, according to National Council of La Raza researchers.

Depending on where a person lives, attitudes about food can vary enormously, and cultural practices are so ingrained, it’s often hard to recognize them as things that could or should be changed. When a family is displaced from its home culture to another, the food insecurity level changes, along with many other variables. The foods they are accustomed to may not be available, and instead, there are all kinds of strange foods about which nothing is known. Nutritional labeling, even if it’s honest, can’t help much if there is a language barrier. When the cost of food is factored in, the situation gets really complicated.

Ethnicity impacts childhood obesity, not only because there appear to be some genetic roots to obesity, but because for many people, ethnicity and culture are so deeply interdependent. Even in the United States, large communities practice what could be considered third-world eating habits. Dr. Pretlow says:

What is really needed is a cultural shift in regard to highly pleasurable food, so that overeating is ‘not cool’ and so that junk food is ‘yuck.’ Junk food and fast food companies need to be regarded as harming health, similar to the shift in attitudes about tobacco companies. It may be helpful to define what a ‘food’ is, versus simply a highly pleasurable substance which may be consumed by kids.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Maternal Perceptions of Toddler Body Size Often Wrong,” ScienceDaily, 05/07/12
Source: “Is our cultural imperative to eat making our kids fatter?,”, 05/05/12
Source: “Latino families battling childhood obesity,”, 01/16/12
Image by laurelelephant (Laurel Hechanova), used under its Creative Commons license.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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