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Every day millions of children are home alone because both parents work. In too many cases, parents don't have time or money to go to a grocery store stocked with healthy food and cannot monitor what the kids eat when they are home by themselves. The kids cannot play outside because the neighborhood doesn't have safe playing areas. They sit in front of a computer or television and watch commercials that promote foods with a high calorie and fat content.
Obesity is a growing epidemic among children in the United States, spreading faster among Hispanic kids, specifically among Mexican-American. Researchers say where these children live, what they eat and what chances they have of engaging in healthy activities are major predictors of their mental and physical well being as they grow.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), [PDF | 6MB] from 1988–2004, the overall prevalence of overweight children ages 2–5 years almost doubled, increasing from about 7% to 14%. In 2003- 2004 Mexican American children between the ages 6 and 11 were 1.3 times more likely to be overweight as non-Hispanic white Children.
The U.S. Surgeon General says obesity is of particular concern for our children, since overweight adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. Among adults, the CDC [PDF | 6MB] says overweight and obesity are associated with increased mortality rates, as well as elevated risks of heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer.
"In the highly impoverished neighborhoods, including schools, where most Hispanic children grow, their environment is characterized by lack of access to healthy foods, lack of access to sports and leisure time physical activity," said Prof. Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, Ph.D., professor of Nutritional Sciences and Public Health at the University of Connecticut, and director of the Center for Eliminating Health Disparities among Latinos (CEHDL).
Dr. Angela Londoño-McConnell, a licensed psychologist and president and co-founder of AK Counseling & Consulting, Inc., said many Hispanic parents today work long hours or have multiple jobs, which limits the amount of time they spend with their children, and their ability to cook healthy meals and monitor what they eat.
"If children come home after school and they are going to just eat a snack, they will gravitate to whatever is at the house and typically it’s not the healthiest of things," she said. "Parents are role models for all kinds of behaviors including food selection, and one of the biggest influences on what kids eat is what is available. Kids do not have the car to go and get food at the store."
For Pérez-Escamilla parents are the nutrition gatekeepers who make the decisions about food purchases and preparation, and who give children access to different types of foods. "Children tend to imitate what their parents do, so the children’s food choices are also influenced by what they observe their parents are eating."
Race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and environment are very important said Luisa N. Borrell, D.D.S., M.P.H., associate professor, Department of Health and Sciences, Lehman College.
Latino neighborhoods have a higher density of junk food outlets and ads for food products not conducive to a healthy diet, said Pérez-Escamilla. Borrell said that one of the indicators for locating fast food restaurants is the percentage of minorities in the neighborhood’s population.
"Such neighborhoods are also less likely to have green areas that may promote walking and physical activities," Borrell said. "These neighborhoods tend to be less safe and have less police patrol. The latter influence whether people want to walk or participate in outdoor activities or not." Londoño agreed, saying: "In general, I think in our society kids are just not engaging in as much outside play."
Healthy foods are typically more expensive, Londoño said. Most neighborhoods have a "bodega" where people can get day-to-day items like bread and milk, but these stores lack a selection of fruits and vegetables. Low-income neighborhoods usually do not have a large grocery store stocked with a variety of healthy items, and the lack of transportation binds residents to buy whatever is available closer to home, she said.
Londoño said that schools, which have a major influence on children's lives, have cut physical education programs from their curriculums. She thinks this tells kids that exercise is not important.
For Pérez-Escamilla, schools in low-income neighborhoods have not been able to provide quality nutrition education, nor access to healthy meals and snacks to the children they teach. "How can Latino parents make a difference when not even the schools where their children go to, teach sound nutrition or support healthy food choices within the school premises?" asked Pérez-Escamilla.
TV ads for high caloric and junk foods are seriously targeted to children during the children-TV time, Borrell said. "It is well known that children and adults usually eat while watching TV and that certain kind of ads motivate people to eat."
To combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, Borrell thinks there should be a strong educational campaign in place to teach people about the health risk of obesity for children. She suggested the issue of obesity have a campaign similar to the Truth Campaign against smoking. "We have been able to make some progress on delaying or preventing smoking in youths, why can something similar works for obesity?"
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