Childhood Obesity Epidemic Affects Native Americans Disproportionately; What Can Be Done About It?


More and more Native American children are becoming obese.

Childhood obesity is an epidemic that has garnered a lot of attention lately, not the least of which is Michelle Obama’s initiative to address it. What is a little less known is that obesity is a problem that disproportionately affects Native American children. It has been clear over the past couple of decades that nutritional diseases are one of the greatest threats to the health of Native Americans (see the data). One only has to look at the explosion of dialysis centers that are now operating directly on the reservations to get an idea of the impact of diseases like diabetes. Whereas as recently as 30 years ago, diabetes and heart disease were relatively rare on the Navajo Nation, both of these have reached epidemic proportions among the Dine (the Navajo people). Far more Navajo  stand to lose their limbs and lives to these nutritional diseases than were ever threatened by the likes of Kit Carson, and the US Cavalry (see Navajo Times article). And it is clear from data gathered over the past few years that obesity begins in childhood, and that its incidence has skyrocketed among the current generation of Navajo children. Health policies and approaches to dealing with this burgeoning problem are desperately needed in an attempt to prevent the extension of childhood obesity into adult obesity where the main detrimental effects occur. What can be done to stop and possibly reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity among Native Americans? Some have suggested requiring more physical education in schools as well as nutritional education for the children and healthier school meals. Will instituting these policies make a difference? The evidence says, “maybe,” but it seems that policy makers have certainly got to try something….

Some of the stakeholders for this important issue are:

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6 Responses to “Childhood Obesity Epidemic Affects Native Americans Disproportionately; What Can Be Done About It?”

  1. varshner Says:

    Thanks for posting this relevant, important and contemporary public health issue facing us as a nation. With one in five children under 5 obese (as per this post), the problem of obesity is already an epidemic.
    I am not sure if there are any genetic factors that make Native American children more prone to obesity or are the factors more socio economic in nature. Some discussion on this can perhaps be helpful in thinking about specific strategies for this population.
    In any case, a partnership among parents and schools will be critical. Both home and school have a significant impact on children’s eating habits and food options made available to them. Also, both school and parents influence a child’s activity levels. So any approach would need to involve both these influencer in a child life.

  2. kiemanh Says:

    Requiring more physical and nutritional education in schools may help to decrease obesity on reservations, but like many problems in public health, childhood obesity is part of a larger societal problem. Like in many poor areas, the larger problem on reservations is the lack of healthy choices and more importantly, the lack of affordable healthy choices. Many times, the only restaurants available for Native Americans living on reservations are fast food restaurants. Furthermore, healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables are often more expensive than fast food or unhealthy foods at the grocery store. Thus, while it may help to teach Native American children that physical education is important and that certain foods are healthier, these lessons will not be effective if Native Americans cannot obtain healthier foods. A more comprehensive solution would be for restaurants on the reservation to offer healthier choices and for the grocery stores on the reservations to offer a more diverse, healthy diet at an affordable price.

  3. stoicaa Says:

    Childhood obesity is an important public health issue and minorities in U.S. seem to be disproportionately affected. Targeting prevention programs toward Native American children is extremely relevant:

    The key determinants of the obesity epidemic in Native American children are two-fold: general key determinants to childhood obesity in U.S. and specific key determinants to the Native American population. The general key determinants are attributable to social and economic changes that took place over the first half of the century, with the availability of abundant food that led not only to better nutrition and improved child health, but also to the current state of excess positive energy balance, exacerbated by an increasing sedentary lifestyle. They include nutrition practices, child activity levels, genetic/biologic/metabolic factors, socio-economic status, food insecurity, social networks, and other community factors. Specific key factors include parental overweight/obesity (metabolic syndrome), family, and cultural tribe factors associated with limitations imposed on living conditions, socio-economic obstacles, as well as limited health insurance coverage and access to medical care.
    Individual level factors are related to food choices and physical activity. Native American children consume fewer fruits and vegetables than do Whites and physical activity levels tend to be lower among Native American children. Native American children’s’ food intake in terms of calories is higher than in some other ethnicities and their consumption of sweetened beverages is also very high. Diet quality does not adhere to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and most of the dietary energy includes sodas, desserts, pizza, snack chips, fruit drinks, processed meats and burgers high in fat, sugar, and/or salt. Thus, dual actions are needed in nutrition and physical activity to help youth and their families in balancing energy intake and expenditures. Schools are the ideal environment for prevention efforts to begin and interventions must be culturally reinforced, with full participation of the Amwerican Indian communities.

    However, obesity is a multi-factorial condition, determined by the complex interaction of proximal and distal factors: genetic, behavioral, environmental (socio-economic/cultural), broad societal, and political. Therefore, preventive intervention strategies must focus at the individual, community, and societal level, as well as in the natural environment, cultural, and political context. From the public health perspective, interventions at distal factors, that influence and shape proximal factors, are more efficient and cost effective.

  4. phenpan Says:

    This is the big problem world wide,not only in US. I totally agree with other comments about imbalance in healthy food intake and physical activity. Furthermore parents also are the important factor. Obese parents trend to have Obese children. This would be the reason of genetic but importantly is the eating and exercise habit. To change behavior in the school may change children mind but may not be practical. Healthy promotion through public media and make healthy food available to all economic status would be another good choices to solve this problem in the long run.

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