Researcher clarifies Native childhood obesity findings
WASHINGTON – From segments on cable news to Associated Press reports, the national news media has been abuzz, reporting findings from a recent study that indicated Native American children to be suffering from an exceptionally high rate of obesity compared to other racial groups. The lead researcher of the study now says the buzz may have been overblown.
The reports stemmed from a study released in April’s “Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine,” which found that obesity prevalence was 31.2 percent for Native preschoolers, compared with 15.9 percent for white children and 12.8 percent for Asian kids. The next closest group to the Native youngsters was Hispanic children, which were found to have a 22 percent obesity rate – 10 points better than American Indian children.
The reports were eye opening for many health experts, especially since there has historically been very little research on youth obesity sorted by racial group. Of the research that has been done, Native American youth have not often been singled out because there are too few of them represented in most studies to allow conclusive findings to be drawn.
Epidemiologist Sarah E. Anderson, of Ohio State University, knew about the historical problem of under sampling of Native kids, so she and her colleagues decided to analyze data on 8,550 children involved in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study who were born in 2001 and assessed in 2005.
The scientists who put together the ECLS study purposely oversampled Native Americans, so statistically significant research could be conducted.
Despite their use of statistically significant data, the researchers involved with the youth obesity study did not single out environmental, social or other factors that may have skewed the numbers. For instance, they did not control for socioeconomic status to determine whether more affluent Native children suffered from higher obesity rates than those living in extreme poverty.
Outside researchers who have explored the study noted that the data does not provide a firm picture on whether race was the determining factor in the obesity differences, or whether some other cause, such as socioeconomic status, played a role.
Gary Nelsestuen, a biochemist with the University of Minnesota who has conducted studies involving Native Americans, believes it was an “oversight” for the researchers not to have matched their findings.
“If you matched for socioeconomic status, the differences between races would likely be much smaller. The research ends up holding much less significance.”
While there may be some genetic component to childhood obesity – something that has not been proven conclusively – Nelsestuen cautioned that environmental factors could be as large, or even bigger. Based on the limitations of the study at hand, he said he’d put more weight on environmental over racial factors.
Anderson said the prevalence of obesity she found for Native kids was surprising to her – and that the findings do not necessarily mean that American Indians are more prone to childhood obesity.
“Our analyses were very descriptive, and did not adjust for factors such as socioeconomic status,” Anderson noted, saying that it was “absolutely” important to point out limitations of the study.
Other research in older populations focused on obesity and socioeconomic status has been conducted, but the results have been mixed. Not all studies, for instance, have found that socioeconomic status is the sole determining factor for obesity or overweight conditions.
“We were not, in this analysis, trying to determine or explain what led to differences in obesity rates at early ages,” Anderson said. “Certainly, much, much more research is needed to understand how it is by age 4, there is such a high prevalence [of obesity] across racial groups.”
Citing her sensitivity to the way the study has been covered in the national media, Anderson said she worried that some people might be led to believe that Native American genetics is correlated with obesity.
“This study cannot say that at all,” she said. “I think that it is very important to be clear that we don’t think that the differences in obesity are due to race/ethnicity, per se, but they may be due to different cultural contexts. We did not look at that at all in this research.”
Anderson said she didn’t think the media attention is a bad thing necessarily, and she hopes her research helps highlight the need to understand obesity in all younger kids. Despite the limitations, Anderson said the study is important because it is the first national analysis of the obesity of 4-year-olds that looked at racial groups.
“We’ve started on this path; now it’s time for more detailed research that can begin to account for our limitations.”
Various tribal and federal health experts have said there is an across-the-board need for childhood obesity prevention efforts to begin early in life for all children, regardless of race.