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Immigrants' Children Tend to Be More Overweight

NEW YORK — Adolescent obesity increases dramatically among second- and third-generation immigrants to the United States, according to a study.

Among children of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, those born in the US were more than twice as likely to be overweight, compared with those born outside of the US, report Drs. Barry M. Popkin and J. Richard Udry, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"These results tell us that the power of the process of adapting to the American lifestyle of diet and activity is far greater and occurs more rapidly than we thought," Popkin said in a press release.

Researchers have not yet identified the reasons for this shift, but Popkin and Udry suggest that declines in physical activity and a higher-fat, more plentiful diet are probably responsible.

The investigators studied data from the 1995-1996 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). This nationally representative survey was unique for its large samples of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American teenagers in grades 7 to 12.

Of more than 13,000 adolescents surveyed, 26.5 percent were obese. For white non-Hispanic teens, the obesity rate was 24.2 percent; for black non-Hispanics, 30.9 percent; for Hispanics, 30.4 percent; and for Asian-Americans, 20.6 percent.

All Asian immigrant groups, except Chinese and Filipinos, doubled their proportion of obese children between the first and second generation. The increase between first- and second-generation Hispanics was nearly as large.

The study also indicates a need for health education efforts focusing on Hispanic and Asian immigrants, the largest and fastest growing ethnic groups in the US.

"The results portend increases in U.S. obesity over the next several decades unless we actively address this problem," Popkin said.

High blood pressure and diabetes — two disorders that are strongly associated with obesity — are increasing rapidly among adolescents. Childhood obesity often persists into adulthood, and overweight adults are more likely to develop a range of health problems.

Popkin and Udry present their results in the May issue of the Journal of Nutrition.