The Epidemic of Childhood Obesity in Native American Children
When excess fat is accumulated in the body, it begins to have an adverse effect on health. Obesity is the medical condition that results from this. It increases the likelihood of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and osteoarthritis. For someone to be considered obese, their body mass index must exceed 30kg/m2. The BMI is obtained by dividing a person's weight by the square of the person's height (Obesity and overweight Fact sheet WHO, 2015).
Obesity is caused by one or a combination of the following factors; excessive food intake, genetic predisposition and lack of physical activity. Most people who live a sedentary lifestyle are most susceptible to obesity. The condition is widespread among certain communities in the developed world as opposed to others because of social and cultural settings. One such group where obesity is prevalent is in Native American Children (Bleich et al. 2008).
Native American obesity statistics
The frequency of obesity among North American Indian children is so high that it has become an epidemic. The major factor that contributes to childhood obesity is the low economic power that ultimately translates to poor health. Most Native American children belong to low and middle-income families which heavily on cheap foodstuffs obtained from local stores and fast foods joints. The nutritional value of such food is usually low, but the energy content is colossal. Also, such food always tastes great and so children easily fall into poor eating habits especially when their guardians fail to monitor them. Another cause of Obesity among Native American children is overfeeding to cope with psychosocial stress associated with threats to cultural identity (Haslam, 2005). Most of them get teased in school for being different, and they struggle to understand who they are in such a diverse society.
Studies of energy expenditure suggest that a low metabolic rate may have contributed to the aggregation of obesity in Native American families. This factor is a genetic predisposition. People of different decent have varying rates at which they break down food. Those who have low metabolic rates store more food as compared to those with a higher metabolism. The same gene types that cause low metabolism may be responsible for the development of obesity-related diseases such as type diabetes among Native American communities.
Native American obesity rates
According to the World Health Organization, the worldwide prevalence of obesity doubled between 1980 and 2014 with a greater chunk of this increase being children. This was caused by an increase in processed foods that were cheaper and widely available. In 2014, it was estimated that 41 million children under the age of 5 years were either overweight or obese. Most of these children belong to ethnic minority groups that reside in urban zones in the United States and Canada (Biol, 2012). Obesity results in more deaths worldwide as compared to the number of health complications that are arising from being underweight. In North America today, there are more obese people than those suffering from malnutrition.
The Racial and Ethnic Approach to Community Health (REACH) surveyed the Native American community in 2010 and found that more than one-third of the U.S. Native American children were obese as compared to only one-fifth of adults. The trend of obesity seems to rise with age with the greatest percentage of obese children being those approaching their teenage years. Many findings indicated that Native American children are plumper than other US children. The path to obesity begins before birth. The earliest physical measurements of that path are made at birth. Most Native American women give birth to children with a high birth weight -a birth weight of 4,000 g or more (Adams & Niswander, 1973). The infants need to feed massive amounts of food frequently to maintain the sizes of their bodies. Their bodies adapt to the metabolism associated with high food ration at a very tender age making it hard to lose weight at later stages of life.
In 1990, 12.9% of births to the U.S. American Indian mothers accounted for birth weights greater than 4,000 g as compared to only 10.9% of births to all other mothers in the United States. In 2009, the percentage of high birth weight among Native American mothers had risen significantly. These studies suggest that obesity in American Indian children begins in the period before birth. American Indian mothers tend to have large babies signaling that obesogenic influences operating during gestation may be responsible for later overweightedness and obesity. There was an upsurge in the cases of obesity among children of Native American communities from the later 1980s to early 2000. This created a major public health concern. Findings from the CDC Paediatric Nutrition Surveillance System on Native Americans in this time range show up to 11.2% rates of obesity among all Native American children ranging from zero to four years of age (Obesity and overweight Fact sheet WHO, 2015).
In the United States, the average American Indian pre-schooler is at greater risk of health complications resulting from obesity compared to their counterparts. Two hundred and fifty-two 3-year-old American Indian children were examined in Wisconsin, and 22.2% of them were classified as obese. The earliest signal of developing obesity is very rapid weight gain. Therefore, children found to be overweight at a very young age should have their nutritional intake monitored and controlled to prevent obesity before it gets out of hand. Studies were done overseer the past few years show that the trend in developing obesity begins at young ages among pre-school children of American Indian descent. As a result, it is necessary for obesity prevention to begin at the earliest age possible.
Obesity policy in America
One of the ways of successfully preventing obesity at an early stage is to target children for health behavior interventions. This could be achieved through scheduling health education programs that emphasize the nutritional value of essential foods and the benefits of exercising. Children are receptive to knowledge, and internalizing healthy habits ensures a healthy future for them. Available literature on obesity prevention suggests that certain behaviors may be associated with obesity. These include over-consumption of energy saddened and high-fat diets and physical inactivity. Training children to eat their vegetables and excuse their bodies at an early age give them the discipline to maintain these practices through to their adult life.
Healthcare systems should be able to create an effective diet composition for pre-schools to be availed to teachers and guardians. The teachers would apply it in the education curriculum while the parents would use it to create an effective feeding program that combats obesity. Altering the diet composition to one higher in carbohydrates and lower in fat would be an effective approach to preventing obesity. Instructors on physical fitness should be made available to pre-school and adolescent children especially those of Native American origin. Physical activity is a huge component of total energy expenditure and burning calories regularly during field activities helps prevent a build up of excess weight (Biol, 2012). The goal of this would be to discourage sedentary lifestyle. It would also function to improve the physical and mental capacity of children, in the long run contributing to an emergence of healthy adults.
The biggest challenge to developing obesity-prevention programs in American Indian communities is poverty. Most families can not maintain the expensive option of healthy diets, and they, therefore, settle for commodity foods with high fats such as canned meats, cheese, butter, canned meats and unsaturated fats for cooking. The better alternative would be fruits, vegetables and grain products (Biol, 2012). The government needs to subsidize on this expensive food stuff for communities such as the Native American to be able to afford them.
There has been a recent proliferation of fast-food joints and convenience food markets and near reservation communities that encourage the consumption of high-fat foods.
The only way to counter this problem is to educate the public on the importance of eating healthy foods and to encourage food joints to serve healthy foods as an alternative.
The society is ultimately responsible for the healthy or unhealthy culture instiled in children. The Native American community needs to find more effective ways of educating itself on the dangers of obesity and the importance of leading a healthier lifestyle. They should do this primarily on children so that they can carry it forward with ease to the next generation.
Adams MS, Niswander JD. (1973). Birth weight of North American Indians: a correction and amplification. Hum Biol. 45:351–357. [PubMed]
Am J Hum Biol (2012). Overweight and Obesity among North American Indian Infants, Children, and Youth; 24(3): 302–313. Retrieved from
Bleich S, Cutler D, Murray C, Adams A (2008). "Why is the developed world obese?” Annu Rev Public Health (Research Support). 29: 273–95. doi:10.1146/annurev.publhealth.29.020907.090954. PMID 18173389.
Haslam DW, James WP (2005). "Obesity." Lancet (Review). 366 (9492): 1197–209. Doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67483-1. PMID 16198769.
Obesity and overweight Fact sheet. WHO.(2015). Retrieved 2 February 2016.
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