Researcher exploring why obesity strikes so hard among Mexican-American boys

May 15, 2015 by Ron Hartung

Fifteen percent of non-Hispanic white children in the United States are obese, but among Mexican-American boys the figure is a much more troubling 23 percent. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Angelina Sutin, a researcher in the Florida State University College of Medicine, will spend the next three years untangling the roots of that disparity.

She'll need loads of data on children's and parents' health, height, weight, personality, family dynamics, economic history, social history and more. The good news is that the information already exists: California Family Project researchers have gathered eight years' worth on nearly 700 adolescents of Mexican origin and their parents. Originally collected to study substance abuse, now it's available to Sutin.

"It was a great opportunity to look at the interrelations between all these risk factors for in the context of adolescent development," said Sutin, an assistant professor in the college's Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine.

The NIH awarded Sutin a three-year grant totaling more than $450,000 to analyze and interpret the information. It was collected in California, which, like Florida, has a large population of Hispanic Americans.

"We will have an advisory committee in Immokalee," said Sutin, referring to the Southwest Florida community that's home to thousands of Hispanic farmworkers. The focus on Hispanic health is directly relevant to the College of Medicine's mission to serve minority and underserved communities. "To what extent do we find things in the population in California similar to the population in Immokalee? What can we take from that to develop more effective interventions?"

Part of what researchers look at is environment. Economic environment includes family income and financial stresses. Social environment includes neighborhood safety and discrimination. Then there's the "built" environment.

"When we talk about obesity, you hear a lot about aspects of the built environment—access to greenspace and parks, access to fast food vs. healthy food. But that is generally talked about devoid of the individual's psychological functioning," Sutin said. "In this study, instead of just saying 'It's the environment' or 'It's the individual,' we can look at the interplay between how the individual's interacting with the environment."

Her research will address global questions about obesity but will also have a particular focus on Mexican Americans, especially first- and second-generation immigrant children.

"There's one very consistent finding—and this seems to be true of all immigrant groups—that the more generations your family is in the U.S., the heavier you get," Sutin said. "Are there any protective factors that we can identify from the home culture?"

It's an important question. Mexican Americans are a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population. And, as Sutin notes, childhood obesity often leads to severe adult obesity. Obesity in adulthood costs the country an estimated total of $147 billion (in 2008 dollars) because it increases the risk of coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and other conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"There's such a great need for a better understanding, particularly in adolescence, which is a really critical period that sets the child's weight trajectory for the rest of their life," she said. "We know that just telling people 'Eat less and exercise more' doesn't work. There are deeper factors, and that's what this project will investigate."

Sutin is the principal investigator. Two of her team members are faculty colleagues from the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine: Suzanne Johnson, an expert in , and Henry Carretta, an expert in geographic information systems. Teaming up with her from Immokalee is Clinical Assistant Professor Javier Rosado, who has worked for several years to reduce obesity among Immokalee children and their parents.

The project also has a training component.

"I will be teaching undergraduates and master's students in our Bridge program how to evaluate the literature, how to do research," Sutin said. "Even if they don't go on to do research, they will have a much better understanding of the needs in our community."

Explore further: Seeing selves as overweight may be self-fulfilling prophecy for some teens

Related Stories

Seeing selves as overweight may be self-fulfilling prophecy for some teens

January 28, 2015
Teens who mistakenly perceive themselves as overweight are actually at greater risk of obesity as adults, according to research findings forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological ...

'Weightism' increases risk for becoming, staying obese

July 24, 2013
Weight discrimination may increase risk for obesity rather than motivating individuals to lose weight, according to research published July 24 in the open access journal PLoS ONE by Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano ...

Perceived age and weight discrimination worse for health than perceived racism and sexism

May 7, 2014
Perceived age and weight discrimination, more than perceived race and sex discrimination, are linked to worse health in older adults, according to new research from the Florida State University College of Medicine.

Weight gain linked with personality trait changes

May 6, 2013
People who gain weight are more likely to give in to temptations but also are more thoughtful about their actions, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological ...

Adopting US culture ups diabetes risk in Mexican-American kids

March 23, 2015
(HealthDay)—The more that Mexican-American children adopt mainstream U.S. culture, the greater their risk for type 2 diabetes, a new study suggests.

Stress and obesity: Your family can make your fat

April 6, 2015
Adolescent obesity is a national public health concern and, unchecked, places young people on a trajectory for a variety of health issues as they grow older. A new study from the University of Houston Department of Health ...

Recommended for you

Living near fast food outlets linked to weight gain in primary school children

September 11, 2017
Children with greater access to fast food outlets are more likely to gain weight compared to those living further away, new research suggests.

Shedding consistent pounds each week linked to long-term weight loss

August 28, 2017
When it comes to losing weight, it's not necessarily slow, but steady, that wins the race, according to new research from Drexel University.

Kids with weight issues at high risk of emotional and behavioural problems

August 10, 2017
A new, in-depth study of New Zealand children and teenagers seeking help with weight issues has found their emotional health and wellbeing is, on average, markedly worse than that of children without weight issues.

Study finds 90 percent of American men overfat

July 24, 2017
Does your waist measure more than half your height?

Are sugary drink interventions changing people's behaviour?

July 19, 2017
An evaluation of efforts designed to reduce how many sugary drinks we consume shows some success in changing younger people's habits but warns they cannot be the only way to cut consumption.

Young adult obesity: A neglected, yet essential focus to reverse the obesity epidemic

July 18, 2017
The overall burden of the U.S. obesity epidemic continues to require new thinking. Prevention of obesity in young adults, while largely ignored as a target for prevention and study, will be critical to reversing the epidemic, ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.