The prevalence of overweight and obese children in the U.S. has quadrupled over the last 25 years. But that statistic alone doesn’t tell the whole story of the burgeoning increase in childhood obesity.
For one thing, race and ethnicity appear to be a factor. Recent estimates suggest that 36 percent of 6-11-year-olds are either overweight or obese, with the percentages higher for Mexican-Americans than non-Hispanic white children.
Playing a role with race and ethnicity is the socioeconomic status (SES) of parents. Higher SES equals less obesity in non-Hispanic white children, but with many African-American children, the relationship is flipped—higher SES means more obesity, notes Dr. Kelly Balistreri of BGSU’s Center for Family and Demographic Research. And in Hispanic and Asian-American families, the relationship between SES and childhood obesity is “murky” if not nonexistent, she adds.
Balistreri hopes to answer questions about that latter lack of connection in a study funded by a two-year, $211,000 grant through the National Institutes of Health. Economic stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are paying for the study, “Demographic Analysis of Socioeconomic Status (SES) Stability and Well-being among Children of Immigrants.”
Immigration is part of the equation because one or both parents in a large number of Hispanic and Asian-American families is an immigrant, Balistreri points out. As a result, she says, something specific to immigrant families may explain the relationship, or lack thereof, between SES and childhood obesity.
Her former BGSU colleague, Dr. Jennifer Van Hook, now at Penn State University, is Balistreri’s co-author on the grant project, which will look at characteristics of immigrant families and their home countries. For instance, she says, the SES-obesity relationship is often the opposite of Western countries in a less-developed nation, where obesity can be “a symbol of affluence” in a person of means. If parents have that image of the connection between health and wealth, it may be mirrored in their children, she adds.
“If immigrant parents carry culturally shaped lifestyle patterns and parenting styles with them from their countries of origin, this might in turn influence the relationship between SES and children’s weight in groups that include large portions of immigrants,” Balistreri notes.
And the more than 20 percent of American school-age children now coming from immigrant families represent “a large and growing population of children we need to address,” she says. “The health outcomes of the children of immigrants are of great policy significance because they represent the fastest growing segment of U.S. society under age 18.”
Balistreri was an applied demographer at the Center for Family and Demographic Research when she submitted the grant application. She is resuming her affiliation with the center as a research professor after spending the past year as associate director of BGSU’s National Center for Marriage Research.