Race, Culture, and Obesity

To observe the upcoming holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Childhood Obesity News is looking back over, and catching up with, matters connected with ethnicity and race. The point here is that every kid deserves the chance to have good health. It is interesting to look back over time at how different factions in different places have attempted to deal with a whole spectrum of related issues.

In 2013, researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto discovered that kids whose parents are stressed out have slightly higher Body Mass Index ratings than kids with lower-stress parents. At first glance, this looks like a prime candidate for the maxim, “Correlation does not imply causation.” With a multifactorial problem like childhood obesity, it must be enormously difficult to tease out the truth about what causes what. On the other hand, the Children’s Health Study is said to provide both plentiful and reliable data.

Of course it should surprise no one, that parents and children are able to cause each other reciprocal stress that bounces between them like a ping-pong ball — except that rather than weakening, according to the laws of physics, the stress only increases, according to psychological weaknesses and quirks that Dr. Sigmund Freud went so far toward explaining.

Dr. Ketan Shankardass is a social epidemiologist who specializes in health in the inner city. He points out that more than half the young people in the study were Hispanic, and “the effect of stress on their BMI was greater than children of other ethnic backgrounds.” According to the press release,

Dr. Shankardass said that rather than focusing only on getting parents to change their behavior, it would be useful to focus on interventions that can support families living in challenging conditions, such as making sure they have a reliable supply of healthy food, an opportunity to live in a nice neighbourhood and other financial or service resources to help cope with stress.

In 2014, April Herndon published Fat Blame, described as being a book about…

[…] how the war on obesity is, in many ways, shaping up to be a battle against women and children, especially women and children who are marginalized via class and race… They are simply the latest victims of the war on obesity — a war declared on a “disease” but conducted […] along cultural lines.

Herndon examines the true stories of young people whose lives have been turned upside-down by interventions that were supposed to do them good, from ill-advised bariatric surgery, to removal from real parents, to placements in foster homes or worse. In many cases, the author argues, the families involved are not really helped, and are actually victims of discrimination.

Around the same time, the “food desert” issue was being examined from many angles by academics who noticed that disadvantaged people in predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods tend to have very limited access to fresh, healthful food choices. When people’s energy is sapped by the daily challenges of grinding poverty, they lack not only money, and adequate transportation for shopping, but the kitchen skills that would enable them to make better use of access to fresh produce.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Parental stress linked to obesity in children,” EurekAlert.org, 12/06/13
Source: “Fat Blame,” KansasPress.ku.edu, June 2014
Source: “Redefining the Food Desert: Combining Computer-Based GIS with Direct Observation To Measure Food Access,” ResearchGate.net, Dec 2014
Image by Michael Coghlan/Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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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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