Assessing the Prevalence of Childhood Obesity Among Limited-Resource Latino and Non-Latino Families in Virginia

Year: 2003

Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University

Investigator: Serrano, Elena L., and Ruby H. Cox

Institution: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Project Contact:
Elena Serrano, Assistant Professor
Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise
252 Wallace Hall
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, VA 24601
Phone: 540-231-3464


Obesity among U.S. children is an increasing concern. Nationwide data from 2000 show that an estimated 15 percent of children and adolescents age 6-19 are overweight, a rate that has tripled within 30 years. The risk of obesity crosses all socioeconomic and ethnic groups, but obesity is slightly more prevalent in low-income groups, and in Native American, Hispanic, and African American populations. In Virginia, few data exist on the prevalence of overweight or obesity among the youth population, particularly Latinos, a growing population in the South. This study investigated the prevalence of overweight among Latino and non-Latino low-income Virginia youth. The research also identified potential contributors to obesity and examined alternative methods for determining overweight.

Data were gathered from two population groups: Latina mothers (Part I) and Latino and non-Latino children (Parts II & III). In Part I, 85 Latina mothers were recruited through the Virginia Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Demographic information, acculturation, and dietary and physical activity patterns were assessed using bilingual written survey instruments.

Part II involved the collection of height, weight, and waist circumference data from 217 children from 5 ethnically diverse elementary and middle schools attended by low-income students in rural and urban areas of Virginia. A sub-sample of this population (Part III) was used to evaluate body figure scales developed specifically for Latinos. A short survey instrument exploring dietary and physical activity patterns was also administered. Informed consent was obtained from all subjects and parents.

The results indicated that the Latinas included in the study were mainly from Bolivia and El Salvador, demonstrated limited acculturation, and spoke Spanish as a primary language. Almost half the participants were overweight or obese (based on reported height and weight), nearly 50 percent reached the 5-A-Day goal for fruits and vegetables, and only 15 percent met the recommendations for physical activity. Fifty percent of subjects were female, 41.7 percent White, 25 percent Black, and 20.7 percent Latino. Body Mass Index (BMI) percentiles, based on age and sex, ranged from 3.6 to 99.9, with a mean percentile of 64.9 and a median of 68.5. Less than 5 percent (4.5 percent) of subjects were considered underweight, one-sixth (14.7 percent) were at risk of overweight, and almost one-quarter (22.6 percent) were overweight, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cutoff points. Females had significantly higher BMI percentiles than males, with means of 67.4 and 64.5, respectively. Multivariate regression found an interaction between rural/urban residency and ethnicity. White rural children were significantly heavier and had larger waist circumferences than those living in urban areas. Conversely, Latino and Black children living in urban areas were significantly heavier than those living in rural areas.

The study also examined an alternative method to determine overweight. Respondents were asked to choose the body figure, a visual representation of different body weights that most closely resembled their own. Results indicated that respondents with higher BMI were more likely to choose a figure choice that indicated overweight.

The study documented a rate of obesity among Latino and non-Latino low-income youth and mothers that is much higher than national averages. The study used a convenience sample, and thus it may not be representative of other regions and/or population sub-groups.