Researchers at Penn State University recently reported that children of Mexican origin have the highest obesity rates of all ethnic groups in the U.S., even as childhood obesity rates are increasing nationwide. The research team focused on the possible causes for this ethnic difference.
“The risks of obesity are stratified among Mexican-origin children according to their generation status — the number of generations their family has been in the U.S.,” Dr. Molly Martin, an associate professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State, said in a university press release. Previous research has suggested Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born children — first and second generation — have higher probabilities of being overweight than comparable groups in Mexico or the third generation born in the U.S.
Dr. Martin and her team wanted to dig deeper into the reasons for these findings. Together with Dr. Jennifer Van Hook, professor of Sociology and Demography and Director of Penn State’s Population Research Institute, and Susana Queirós, a graduate student, the team analyzed family socioeconomic status (SES) to determine whether it affected the dietary risks linked to different generations.
Dr. Martin says hers is the first study to explore the correlation between SES, generation status and children’s nutrition. “Historically, Mexican-origin immigrant families have been at the bottom of the socioeconomic distribution … We focused on children’s nutrition because we know from previous research [that] poor nutrition is a risk factor for childhood obesity and because immigrant families’ diets frequently decline with increasing exposure to the U.S.”
The research team gathered data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination study from 1999 to 2009, and analyzed associations between nutrition in Mexican-origin children from 5 to 17 years old, generational status, and their families’ SES. While hypothesizing that children born in Mexico were likely to have taste preferences for traditional Mexican food, the researchers observed that North American children of immigrant parents were more attracted to foods typifying the American diet, like fries, burgers and soda. “Children of immigrants often want to fit in with their U.S. peers, and part of fitting in is eating the same foods,” Dr. Martin said.
The team similarly found that Mexican-born parents with higher status — higher levels of education and income — were better able to control their children’s food choices. “Immigrant families that successfully integrate into American society have better outcomes, while those families that struggle economically face additional risks, including their children’s health,” Dr. Martin said. The worst dietary habits and outcomes were found in third generation Mexican-Americans with the lowest SES. “The results weren’t entirely expected, as we’ve seen in other studies a higher socioeconomic status can lead to declines in health due to access of more calorie-dense foods, electronics, and a more sedentary lifestyle.”
The Penn State researchers hope to investigate further childhood obesity rates among Mexican-American children and the factors affecting them, such as diets among generations and socioeconomic groups, and whether the children eat most meals at home, school or elsewhere.