Racial/Ethnic Differences in Early-Life Risk Factors for Childhood Obesity

Early in life, Black and Hispanic children face circumstances that make them more likely than White children to develop obesity. One approach to understanding obesity is through its risk factors. For example, studies have shown that excessive maternal weight gain during pregnancy increases the odds that a child will develop obesity; Smoking during pregnancy, maternal depression and diabetes are also likely causes of obesity in early childhood and adolescence.

This study investigated whether obesity risk factors specific to pregnancy and early childhood follow racial and ethnic patterns. The authors obtained information from a cohort of mothers participating in a prospective study called Project Viva. The mothers identified the race or ethnicity of their child after the third-year survey. At six and 12 months after birth, research assistants asked mothers about breast-feeding; at six months, one year, and two years mothers completed surveys about infant sleep patterns and the amount of television their child was watching; the authors also collected data related to fast food consumption.

Key Findings:

  • Between six months and two years of age, Black and Hispanic children were more likely than White children to have a television in their room; during the same age range Black and Hispanic children consumed more fast food.
  • Black mothers were more controlling of their children’s diets, restricting foods and pressuring their children to eat.

Obesity can begin to develop by early childhood, however, most national initiatives to prevent obesity focus on children after three years olds. The findings of this study indicate that obesity risk factors emerge during early childhood and follow racial and ethnic patterns.