By the third grade, more than one in three Native Americans are considered obese, according to the report issued this month by the New Mexico Department of Health.
The prevalence of obesity rises sharply between kindergarten and third grade. The study found that 15 percent of kindergartners are obese, rising to 22 percent by third grade.
The study was based on a survey of more than 3,600 New Mexico children at 28 schools statewide between August and November.
“The massive weight gain at this early age contradicts the widely held assumption that obesity occurs at older ages,” New Mexico Department of Health officials wrote.
New Mexico isn’t alone in what seems to be a growing problem. Data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the percentage of obese children in the United States has increased in recent decades.
Among U.S. children ages 2-5, those considered obese increased from 7.2 percent in 1988 to 10.4 percent in 2008. For children ages 6 to 11, those considered obese increased from 11.3 percent in 1988 to 19.6 percent in 2008.
The state study shows an urgent need to encourage children at early ages to eat healthier food and get more physical activity, said Patty Morris, an author of the report.
“Interventions need to happen at really early ages if we’re going to have a chance to slow the growth rate of the obesity problem in New Mexico,” said Morris, director of the agency’s office of nutrition and physical activity.
Childhood obesity increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, which afflicts more than 120,000 New Mexicans, with annual treatment costs averaging $13,000 per case, the report said. Obesity also puts a child at heightened risk of hypertension, high cholesterol and other precursors of heart disease.
Obese kindergartners weighed 63 pounds on average, compared with 43 pounds for students of healthy weight. By third grade, obese students weighed 102 pounds, on average, while students of healthy weight averaged 61 pounds.
The results suggest obesity is most common among low-income children, particularly in rural areas where processed and packaged foods are often cheaper and easier to find than fresh fruits and vegetables, Morris said.
Healthy school meal programs are a good start, Morris said. In 2007, state lawmakers prohibited vending machines in elementary schools and required school districts to develop policies to encourage healthy eating and physical activity in schools.
Little data exists to show whether school districts are complying with those requirements, although vending machines have been largely eliminated from New Mexico elementary schools, she said.
But solutions also require parental responsibility and community involvement, Morris said.
“Obesity is an individual problem and it’s a societal problem,” she said. “Each one of us has a responsibility to take on that part we can do something about.”
Communities have found a variety of ways to improve access to healthy foods, such as starting green markets and community gardens, Morris said.
Food buyers’ clubs also can help people obtain healthy, affordable food, she said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal