How Sweets, SNAP, and Stress Affect Childhood Obesity

This article is the second in Child and Family’s five article series on the intersection of child and family policy and entitlement programs. For the rest of the series, click here.

The best way to prevent obesity is to start before a child is born. Pediatric obesity is likely to lead to chronic obesity, and identifying risk factors for prevention is crucial. The Hispanic population has a higher rate of obesity than the rest of the population, and therefore prevention among this group is particularly important.

Sugar, Stress, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Early Childhood Obesity Risks Among a Clinic-Based Sample of Low-Income Hispanics,” a study published this June in the Journal of Community Health, examines a sample of low-income Hispanic mothers and their infants to identify prenatal risk factors that may lead to higher rates of obesity in Hispanic children. The researchers concluded that three prenatal maternal factors were associated with infants being overweight: stress, consumption of sugary foods, and participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The authors advocate for development of new types of educational prevention programs that may address the link between stress and consumption of sugary foods.

Though the rate of childhood obesity is high in the Hispanic population, few studies before this one have looked empirically at a Hispanic group to determine which aspects of health and lifestyle would respond to preventative programs. Indeed, despite the high rate of childhood obesity in this population, few nutrition education programs exist that target Hispanic women specifically, during their pregnancy. Hispanics are one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the United States; consequently, childhood obesity among Hispanics is becoming a key concern for health professionals. The authors of the Journal of Community Health study seek to address this need for childhood obesity prevention among Hispanics by considering ways in which childhood obesity and prenatal behavior may be tied to cultural norms among low-income Hispanic mothers.

The researchers surveyed 153 pregnant, low-income Hispanic women who attended a clinic for prenatal check-ups and infant wellness visits. The women received guidance on nutrition at the clinic, through cooking and nutrition classes, vouchers to farmer’s markets, and other supportive services. The women reported on a number of areas related to their health, including their diet, exercise, and mental health. Survey results were later matched to their infants’ weights during their two, six, and 12 month wellness visits. The survey showed that even though the majority of women who participated did not follow doctor recommended diets during their pregnancy, only three factors were strongly associated with infants’ likelihood to develop childhood obesity: consumption of sugary foods (particularly sugary beverages), high levels of stress, and participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Participation in SNAP was significantly associated with infants being overweight, accounting for a remarkable 67 percent of infants who were at risk for becoming overweight in childhood. This finding supports previous research that shows participants in SNAP consume a high rate of sugary beverages overall, causing some big city mayors to suggest that SNAP participants should be unable to purchase sugary beverages on the program. Its association with infant weight in this study likely supports the relationship between prenatal consumption of sugar and infants being overweight. The high rate of association between childhood obesity and SNAP points to one of the researchers’ key findings: the overall inadequacy of educational programming for this group.

Nutrition education programs like the services that these women received are a start at addressing childhood obesity in Hispanics. This kind of prevention is useful for addressing access to healthy food and providing important information about nutrition to participants. As this research shows, however, coping with stress may also be a key aspect of childhood obesity prevention. In particular, there is a possible association between stress and eating sugary foods to be explored in further research. Preventing SNAP participants from buying sugary beverages may decrease their consumption, but until there is a greater understanding of the link between stress and consumption of sugary beverages, those efforts may be a bit short sighted.

Many factors, including income, stress associated with being part of an immigrant group, and lower access to healthy food lead to higher rates of obesity in the low-income Hispanic population. Consumption of sweets may also be tied to Hispanic cultural norms, a finding supported by previous ethnographic research. Policy makers should take a closer look at cultural norms and the relationship between stress and consuming sugar if they are to prevent obesity among low-income Hispanics.

Feature Photo: cc/(Aaron Shumaker)'
Louise Geraghty
Louise Geraghty is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in child and family policy.

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