September opens with both an annual observation of National Childhood Obesity Month, as well as an urgent call by healthcare professionals across the nation to reduce the increase of overweight and obese Black children – which are at critically high numbers.
Some data, including that offered by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust of America’s Health, cite both an overall increase in overweight and obesity rates among Black children and faster and earlier rates of severe weight increases.
From 1999 to 2012, for instance, 35.1 percent of Black children ages 2 to 19 were overweight, and another 20.2 percent diagnosed as obese. Equally troubling, while those in lower income brackets, with less access to affordable and nutritious foods were seen as examples of gaining weight, additional factors, including emotional upset, stress and physical trauma, are only now being assessed as contributing factors.
Alison L. Miller, author of Early Life Stress and Childhood Obesity Risk, a study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, reported early life stressors, including chronic poverty and adverse childhood experiences such as abuse or domestic violence exposure, are associated with obesity in adolescents and children.
“Early life stress can have a powerful influence on the developing child. Overstimulation of biological stress responses can have profound negative effects on structure and function of the brain and other biological systems, which are developing rapidly in the early years,” Miller said in the report. “In addition to changes in biological systems, stress exposure in early life can affect children’s dietary, physical activity, and other health behaviors, increasing their risk of overweight and obesity.”
Black families have earned $1 for every $2 earned by White families for the past 30 years, said Miller, with more than 38 percent of Black children under the age 18 and 42.7 percent of children under the age five living below the poverty line. An additional one in four Black-families are food insecure (not having consistent access to adequate food due to lack of money or other resources), compared with 11 percent of White households.
Ward 8 resident Doris Alsobrooks, a caregiver to two grandchildren, said she believes the data on stress could be extremely helpful in lowering the weight and raising the confidence of overweight children. She said Ward 7 and 8 carry the highest numbers of obesity, acknowledging that food deserts and lack of exercise are only part of the problem.
“I feed the grandchildren the same as I did my children, yet all of them could be considered overweight,” Alsobrooks told the AFRO. “I believe that the emotional stress they feel living with me instead of their parents, and feeling disconnected or depressed about their father being incarcerated and their mother not being around.”
The D.C. Department of Health documented that obesity East of the Anacostia river topped 72 percent among residents. This area is home to many marketing campaigns pushing high-calorie, low-nutrition foods and beverages on billboards and other forms of outdoor advertisements. Alsobrooks said the enticement for quick, cheap, and emotionally-comforting foods play a major factor.
“We have to look at our kids’ overeating or gaining weight as emotional, as well as not having access or money to purchase good food,” Alsobrooks told the AFRO. “The problem is that by not addressing the root causes of weight gain sooner, it becomes really tough to get a fix later.”