Academic journal article Childhood Obesity

Racial Discrimination and Low Household Education Predict Higher Body Mass Index in African American Youth

Academic journal article Childhood Obesity

Racial Discrimination and Low Household Education Predict Higher Body Mass Index in African American Youth

Article excerpt

Address correspondence to: Rebecca E. Hasson, PhD, FACSM, School of Kinesiology, University of Michigan, 1402 Washington Heights, 2110 Observatory Lodge, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, E-mail:


Pediatric obesity continues to exact a considerable public health toll, particularly among ethnic minority youth.1 The most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) estimates from 2012 reported that 40% of African Americans, ages 12-19, were overweight or obese compared with 31% of non-Latino whites.1 Although several behavioral mechanisms have been identified to explain the greater obesity prevalence among African American youth,2 the independent role of the social environment remains less clear.

Household factors, including low levels of household education, have been associated with increased obesity risk in children and adolescents.3 Data from the National Center for Health Statistics suggest that 12% of boys living in households where the head of the household had at least a college degree (i.e., high education) were obese compared with 21% of those living in households where the head of the household had less than a high school degree (i.e., low education).4 Among girls, 8% of children and adolescents in high-education households were obese compared with 20% in low-education households.4 More specifically, among African American girls, the prevalence of obesity was 17% in high-education households compared with 26% in low-education households.4 However, the protective effects of household education were not observed for African American boys.4 Others have found no relationships5 or positive associations6,7 with parent education and obesity in ethnic minority youth, warranting further research.

Neighborhood factors, including community violence exposure, can also impact obesity risk via decreased participation in physical activity.8 For youth living in neighborhoods where there is a greater prevalence of community violence, fear of walking in one's neighborhood or low level of trust in one's neighbors may lead to increased psychological stress9 and/or decreased physical activity participation outdoors.10 Indeed, focus groups conducted with African American mothers suggested that the threat of violence strongly influenced the amount of daily outdoor physical activity in which their daughters participated.11 Hence, perceptions of crime and lack of safety within a community can be a barrier to meeting physical activity recommendations, thereby potentially increasing obesity risk in African American youth.10

Psychosocial factors, including increased exposure to racial discrimination, can indirectly increase obesity risk via stress-induced changes in food consumption. Brodish et al. demonstrated that racial discrimination experienced during adolescence was associated with decreased healthy eating at age 30 in a sample of middle-class African American and non-Latino white men and women.12 In response to an acute laboratory stressor, Bermudez-Millan et al. noted in middle-aged African American and non-Latino white women that exposure to higher levels of racial discrimination predicted more eating and alcohol consumption after the stress condition when they were exposed to a stressor compared with when they were not.13 These findings suggest that exposure to racial discrimination is associated with stress eating and subsequent obesity in adulthood. These findings, however, are not universal as previous research examining the relationship between racial discrimination and BMI has yielded mixed results in adults,14-16 and fewer researchers have examined these relationships during adolescence.

Finally, sociocultural factors can play an important role in shaping obesity risk via increased psychological stress and subsequent changes in food consumption in African American youth. …

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