Researchers studying obesity among rural children in Head Start programs have discovered that those from families in which English is the second language are at higher risk for being overweight.
The study of 788 children in two Minnesota counties also found that Mexican children "were almost twice as likely to be overweight as Caucasian children and the rest of ethnic groups, including non-Mexican Hispanic children."
However, ethnicity aside, "the surprising point is that language is still important in predicting childhood obesity," said co-author Young Juhn, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic.
The study appears in the latest issue of the journal Ethnicity & Disease.
Participants encompassed children ages three to five years who were enrolled in the Head Start programs in Olmsted and Freeborn counties between 1998 and 2001, before "obesity epidemic" had become a public health catchphrase.
The Mayo researchers found no difference in risk for being overweight between Head Start children in rural areas and those in the inner city.
But they were surprised to learn that the primary language spoken at home does influence whether a child is at risk for becoming overweight, although other factors such as socioeconomic status also could have an impact, Juhn said. The researchers said the primary language spoken at home was "newly identified" as being a risk and merits further investigation.
The "prevalence of overweight among children" in the state- and federally funded Head Start readiness program "appears to be higher than the national average," the researchers found.
ESL children had a "significantly higher prevalence" of overweight (15.5 percent) than did children for whom English was the primary language (9.7 percent). "The language barrier may be more significant than we think in limiting families speaking English as a second language from access to healthy foods," Juhn said.
The Head Start program "is a great setup for educating ESL families about healthy foods," he said, and recommended that it do something "to promote healthier foods onsite."
Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D., director of research and school programs at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, agreed that Head Start has "great potential" for educating ESL children and their parents in eating healthy foods "because it has access to all of these kids."
Federally funded schools, she said, are required to have written guidelines, which forces schools to confront health issues. She suggested that Head Start could do the same, possibly "in combination with requiring that each district come up with a plan to promote health."