THURSDAY, Dec. 28, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. obesity epidemic begins with kids barely out of diapers -- at least in poor, urban families, a new study suggests.
A review of nearly 2,000 3-year-old, low-income children and their mothers found that one-third of white and black children were overweight or obese, while a stunning 44 percent of Latino children fell into those categories.
"The message is that we're seeing overweight and obesity at younger ages than we thought possible," said study author Rachel Tolbert Kimbro, a health and society scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "It's a particular problem in lower-income communities, and it's something we need to keep an eye on and prevent as much as possible."
According to Kimbro, there's been little research into weight problems among very young children. But, studies have shown high rates of obesity among older children and teenagers.
In the new study, the researchers examined surveys of parents who had children from 1998 to 2000 in 20 large U.S. cities. The parents lived in urban areas and were poor.
The researchers focused on 1,976 children whose height and weight were measured at 3 years of age. After adjusting the statistics to discount the influence of factors such as the age and education level of parents -- which have been shown to affect obesity in children -- the researchers found that 32 percent of the white and black children were overweight or obese, as were 44 percent of the Latino children.
The study findings are published in the Dec. 28 online edition of the American Journal of Public Health.
Why the difference between the groups of children? While the answer isn't clear, the researchers said they did uncover a few clues. For one thing, children who took bottles to bed were nearly twice as likely to be overweight or obese, and Latino kids were more likely to do that than black or white kids. The excess calories in the bottles could contribute to obesity, Kimbro surmised.
Also, children with overweight or obese mothers were nearly twice as likely to be overweight or obese as kids with normal-weight mothers. Latino children with overweight mothers were most likely to be fat themselves, the researchers said.
Breast-feeding for six months or more also helped protect children of obese mothers from becoming obese themselves, the researchers said.
Does it matter if a 3-year-old is heavy? Definitely, according to Kimbro, who said overweight young children are at higher risk of asthma, orthopedic problems and even high blood pressure.
"And the earlier these health problems start, the more serious the consequences will be later in life," she said.
Also, Kimbro added, heavy youngsters are "subject to more psychosocial stress and stigma."
Cynthia Sass, a registered dietician in Tampa, Fla., and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said, "We are seeing young children with 'adult' diseases like type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and several cardiovascular risk factors."
Still, the new findings need to be confirmed in future research, Sass said, and the conclusions need to be firmer.
"The authors only have theories about why Hispanic preschoolers are nearly twice as likely to be overweight or obese by age 3," Sass said. "We do know that an overweight child has a 70 percent chance of becoming an overweight or obese adult, so being able to identify at-risk children early can be very valuable. But we need more information in order to understand how to create prevention-oriented programs."
To learn more about childhood obesity and how to combat it, visit the American Academy of Childhood & Adolescent Psychiatry.