Hispanic Students Show Highest Obesity Rates

By Sandra G. Leon

A study released this week found that childhood obesity rates in Hispanic children are more than twice as high as white students in San Diego County schools, with 23.1 percent of Hispanic students being overweight or obese, compared to only 8.9 percent of white students.

The report, released by the San Diego County Obesity Initiative (COI), reviewed physical fitness test results of over 99,000 students among the 42 school districts in our county. The tests measure body composition of fifth, seventh, and ninth grade students consistent with the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The districts with the five highest levels of childhood obesity, from first to fifth, are National School District in National City, Escondido, South Bay, Lemon Grove, and San Ysidro, with those schools also ranking among those with the highest levels of Hispanic students.

“These findings are important because Hispanic students represent approximately half of all public school students in San Diego County with respect to race/ethnicity and similarly, low-income students account for half of all public school students in San Diego County with respect to socioeconomic status,” the study states.

In reviewing the rankings among the County’s 42 school districts, the range of childhood obesity ranged from the lowest in Coronado at 15 percent to the highest at 50 percent for National School District. The report shows that the variation among obesity rates was tied to underlying economic, environmental, and social conditions of the districts.

The lowest levels of childhood obesity in the study were from school districts in more affluent areas; Coronado, Rancho Santa Fe, San Dieguito, Del Mar, and Julian High.

The results also showed that the highest rates of childhood obesity were found among students in households enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), commonly referred to as food stamps, with a full 30.2 percent being either overweight or obese.

“Highly disparate childhood obesity rates among children of differing socioeconomic and racial/ethnic populations demonstrate the existence of glaring health disparities among San Diego County children,” the report finds. “[S]uccess in preventing and reducing childhood obesity in the region will require an intentional and intensive health equity strategy.”

Among the various school districts in the county, some have implemented more advanced health nutrition and exercise programs, helping to account for some of the variations among obesity rates.

For example, 19 of the 42 school districts in the County maintain active wellness councils, on-site groups organized to plan and advocate for wellness policies and programs in their district. Of the 501,269 public school students in the County, approximately 72 percent attend districts with wellness councils.

The report also found that only 7 of the 42 districts had strong physical activity and physical education policies in place, including Chula Vista Elementary and San Ysidro School Districts, covering only 9 percent of the students in the County. Seven other districts had somewhat strong policies, but, 26 others did not have strong physical education policies.

“We need to do more to help our students eat better at school and to require more physical activities during the school day,” said Maria Cervantes, a mother of two Chula Vista elementary students. “And as parents, we need to watch what our kids eat, too.”

Another study released this week by the University of Surrey in England, concluded that childhood obesity raises the likelihood of suffering a heart attack or stroke as an adult. That study reviewed data from 300,000 young students and compared their health outcomes 25 years later.

The British study found that having childhood obesity was a strong predictor for arterial damage and impaired glucose tolerance, but less of a predictor of hypertension and stroke. One big concern was that the damage caused by childhood obesity still affected adults even if they had lost weight in the years after childhood.

“It is worrying that obesity is becoming endemic in our society,” said Martin Whyte, lead author of the study.

The issue of childhood obesity was highlighted in San Diego this week at the 9th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference, the nation’s largest collaboration of professionals dedicated to combating pediatric obesity. The conference is designed to share and discuss emerging research, best practices, community-based efforts, and effective policy strategies that promote and sustain healthy eating and physical activity practices for children and their families.

Started in 2001 and held every two years, the conference brings together academic researchers, community and business leaders, educators, health care professionals, local, state, and federal health department staff, and policymakers. This year, more than 2,000 people are expected to attend the conference.

At the federal level, this week the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded $6.6 million in grants to ten universities to conduct research to gain a better understanding of the factors behind childhood obesity, develop and expand effective intervention programs, and to train parents, caregivers, and educators to prevent and reduce obesity among children.

“Healthy habits start with families,” said NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy. “With these NIFA investments, we are helping at-risk families make lifestyle changes that will add up to a lifetime of better health for their children.”

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