Recently, there have been a number of studies showing that the Latino population in the United States is disproportionately affected by obesity. With Latinos as the fastest–growing ethnic group in the United States, this critical public health issue must be addressed sooner rather than later. As evidence on the impact of obesity on the Latino community continues to emerge, policymakers may be forced to grapple with this difficult issue and design effective strategies that promote healthy eating and physical activity amongst a growing Latino population.
What does recent research say? Obesity rates in the Latino population are high, with Latino adults 14 percent more likely to be obese than non-Latino adults. And, although believed partly to be due to genetics, twice as many Latino adults as non-Latino white adults have diabetes. Despite immigrating to the United States, research suggests that Latino immigrant health suffers due to the adoption of unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, including smoking, drinking, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity. In fact, the longer Latin American immigrants have lived in the United States, the worse their health becomes and the higher their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Studies show that Latinos born outside of the United States now live about three years longer their American-born counterparts.
Unfortunately, obesity rates are even more alarming amongst Latino children, who are 51 percent more likely to be obese than non-Latino white children. The unhealthy food environment is particularly acute in Latino-centric schools. “Salud America! Healthier School Snacks & Latino Kids” – a set of research materials released earlier this month by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – reveals that access to junk food and unhealthy beverages in schools has a disproportionately negative health influence amongst Latino students. In fact, schools with a higher proportion of Latino students tend to have weaker policies regarding access to unhealthy foods.
As I’ve blogged in the past, the negative effect of easier access to unhealthy food in schools may be exacerbated by the aggressive marketing of unhealthy foods to children. A recent study published in the Journal of Health Communication found that more than 84 percent of all foods and beverages advertised to children on Spanish-language television shows are unhealthy.
Why might Latinos be disproportionately affected by obesity? The high prevalence of obesity within the Latino population is a complex problem and likely the result of a multifaceted set of factors. Research suggests that children of immigrants often assume lifestyles that are similar to the Americans in the same socioeconomic group, which tend to be lower-income with higher rates of smoking and unhealthy diets. Traditional diets may be eroded by the accessibility of cheap, fast food; the expense of purchasing healthier food items; and the fact that the fast food culture may represent the American lifestyle and an ideal of success. Low-income neighborhoods may also have fewer safe playgrounds, parks and well-equipped recreational facilities.
Some researchers also point to cultural factors. American-born Latinos are more likely than foreign-born Latinos to be raising children alone and lack the larger kinship networks that may help shield them from the harsh economic realities that can lead to poor health. For example, parents of immigrant families may work more than one job, which could lead to less time at home and, subsequently, less control over their children’s diets during meal times.
What does it all mean? In light of this mounting body of research, policymakers must consider these findings when designing effective policies and environmental strategies that promote healthy eating and physical activity amongst a growing Latino population in America. Despite the discouraging findings, the recent wave of research and media focus on Latino health disparities may help drive policy solutions to ensure that a vulnerable minority population does not disproportionately bear the burden of the obesity epidemic.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.