- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

CHICAGO (AP) | A striking new study says almost one in five American 4-year-olds is obese, and the rate is alarmingly higher among American Indian children, with nearly a third of them obese.

Researchers were surprised to see differences by race at such an early age.

More than a half-million 4-year-olds are obese, the study suggests. Obesity is more common in Hispanic and black youngsters, too, but the disparity is most startling in American Indians, whose rate is almost double that of whites.

“The magnitude of these differences was larger than we expected, and it is surprising to see differences by racial groups present so early in childhood,” said Sarah Anderson, an Ohio State University public health researcher. She conducted the research with Dr. Robert Whitaker, a professor at Temple University.

Dr. Glenn Flores, a pediatrics and public health professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, said the research is an important contribution to studies documenting racial and ethnic disparities in children's weight.

“The cumulative evidence is alarming because within just a few decades, America will become a 'minority majority' nation,” he said.

Without interventions, the next generation “will be at very high risk” for heart disease, high blood pressure, cancers, joint diseases and other problems connected with obesity, said Dr. Flores, who was not involved in the new research.

The study is an analysis of nationally representative height and weight data on 8,550 preschoolers born in 2001. Children were measured in their homes and were part of a study conducted by the government's National Center on Educational Statistics. The results appeared Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine journal.

Almost 13 percent of Asian children were obese, along with 16 percent of whites, almost 21 percent of blacks, 22 percent of Hispanics and 31 percent of American Indians.

Some previous studies of young children did not distinguish between children who were merely overweight versus obese, or they examined fewer racial groups.

In general terms, a person is considered to be obese if he or she is more than 20 percent over ideal weight, which takes into account height, age, sex and build.

The current study looked only at obesity and a specific age group. Ms. Anderson called it the first analysis of national obesity rates in preschool children in the five ethnic or racial groups.

The researchers did not examine reasons for the disparities, but others offered theories.

Dr. Flores cited higher rates of diabetes in American Indians, and also Hispanics, which scientists believe may be because of genetic differences.

Also, other factors that can increase obesity risks tend to be more common among minorities, including poverty, less educated parents and diets high in fat and calories, Dr. Flores said.

Jessica Burger, a member of the Little River Ottawa tribe and health director of a tribal clinic in Manistee, Mich., said many children at her clinic are overweight or obese, including preschoolers.

Ms. Burger, a nurse, said one culprit is gestational diabetes, which occurs during a mother's pregnancy. That increases children's chances of becoming overweight and is almost twice as common in American Indian women, compared with whites.

She also blamed the federal commodity program for low-income people that many American Indian families receive. The offerings include pastas, rice and other high-carbohydrate foods that contribute to what Ms. Burger said is often called a “commod bod.”

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