New Study: African American and Latino Youth "Misperceive" Their True Weight

Illustration for article titled New Study: African American and Latino Youth "Misperceive" Their True Weight

UPI reports on a new study in Pediatrics examining adolescent obesity. However, the framing of the data underscores why it's so difficult to have a conversation about health and weight in the United States. (Michelle Obama, take note.)

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UPI trumpets this statistic:

A study of 65,000 U.S. high school students found 3-in-10 overweight teens say they believe they are actually underweight or "about right," researchers say.

Oh no, the kids can't tell they are over...wait a minute. Three in ten? That means seven in ten kids are aware of their weight. Right, right, right.

The study also found some race and gender correlations:

The data indicate males are twice as likely as their female classmates to misperceive their weight, and African-American and Hispanic youth are significantly more likely to misperceive their weight than their Caucasian peers.

But the article (like most of the articles on obesity) are driven by statistics, thrown into the air without any context or analysis, and mainly used for tsk-tsking about the current state of affairs rather than solving the problem.

In the wake of the White House's initiative to stop childhood obesity, organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have tried to make more information available. Their website includes links to explain how the body mass index is calculated, and includes print outs to help people adopt healthier habits.

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Illustration for article titled New Study: African American and Latino Youth "Misperceive" Their True Weight

But looking through all the resources and links, one persistent question emerges: "why?" Why do more children of color believe they are of average size? Is this a cultural difference? Do they feel like their bodies are normal within the context of their environments? Are they learning a different type of standard for thinness or health?

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Another question that remains frustratingly unanswered is why it's a challenge for people to meet the goals of moderate exercise once a day, of incorporating five or more servings of vegetables into our diets. Is it due to the eating patterns kids learn from sucking down meat and carb heavy school lunches? How much did the slashing of school budgets and the cut backs of institutions like recess and physical education contribute to our current problem with teens? Is there a link between gross family income and the ability to adjust dietary and exercise habits with relative ease?

One study dealt explicitly with the connections between race, gender, and socioeconomic status . University of British Columbia researchers Margaret D. Hanson, MA and Edith Chen, PHD put together a targeted study incorporating an examination of three different factors and drew the following conclusion:

Consistent with previous research, both SES and race were significantly associated with BMI. Teens from low SES and minority groups had higher BMI than high SES or White teens. Age and gender, however, were not significantly associated with BMI in this sample. [...] A greater comprehension of the behavioral pathways linking SES, race, and BMI in adolescence is necessary in order to inform health promotion interventions earlier in life. Interventions aimed at targeting teen overweight may benefit from aiming to increase physical activity in minorities and decrease sedentary behaviors in low SES teens. Changes in behavior could improve the quality of adolescent health and could potentially have long-term ramifications for adult health.

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The obesity epidemic in the United States is a complicated beast - and a major source of the controversy stems from the use of BMI as a health gauge. Considering the system was recalibrated in 1998, shifting 30 million Americans from the healthy weight to the overweight category almost overnight. However, one way to ensure the process stays broken is to focus on scary statistics over thoughtful analysis.

Many overweight teens don't see the weight [UPI]
Spotlight: White House Obesity Initiative [American Academy of Pediatrics]
Official Site [Fed Up With School Lunch]
Socioeconomic Status, Race, and Body Mass Index: The Mediating Role of Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviors during Adolescence (PDF) [Oxford Journals]
How Body Mass Index Works [How Stuff Works]

DISCUSSION

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I don't know if my school was unusual or what, but I had 45 min gym classes every day of the week up through high school. So everyone was getting moderate activity of some kind, especially when they started allowing walking and aerobics. They didn't care what you were doing so long as you were moving. And I went to a public school in a middling to low income area.

If we're really serious about this then we have to make sweeping changes everywhere. I know that a lot of our schools are overburdened but even if we just instituted 30 minutes of walking every morning around a gymnasium, it seems like we'd be on a better track.

And for the love of god, we have GOT to get corporate food companies out of the public schools unless they're funding healthy programs. You don't need soda and candy bars and chips at lunch and the school needn't provide them. I'm not saying those foods are evil, they just aren't necessary during the school day. It can't possibly hurt kids to provide fruit and vegetables and whole foods instead of the other stuff during the day.