When it comes to signs of a healthy child, low-income Hispanic-American mothers may put more stock in a bright smile than a slim body, a new study suggests.
According to researchers, women in the study generally felt that being moderately overweight in early childhood is all right as long as the child “looks and feels good.” In fact, when shown pictures of thin and heavy children, mothers often said a heavier child looked healthier because her hair was “shining” and her face looked happy.
In contrast, thinness was often viewed as a worrisome sign - especially among immigrant Latina women, who considered malnutrition and intestinal infections a greater threat to child health than excess pounds.
The findings suggest that the traditional way of counseling mothers on child nutrition - such as emphasizing the ill health effects of being overweight - might not work for many Hispanic mothers, according to the study authors.
Instead, they say, focusing on the health benefits of a good diet and exercise, which go beyond weight control, may be more effective.
Dr. Patricia B. Crawford of the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues report the findings in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
According to the researchers, national data on low-income children show that 12 percent of Hispanic children between the ages of 2 and 5 are overweight - a figure higher than that among black, white or Asian children the same age.
To get a sense of Latina mothers’ attitudes about weight issues, Crawford’s team surveyed 43 mothers with children between the ages of 2 and 6. The women were recruited from California sites offering the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a federal program that provides nutrition education to low-income families with young children.
Overall, the researchers report, mothers in the study were “reluctant to label their children as overweight,” and even when they acknowledged that a child was heavy, they often believed he or she would “grow out of it.” In addition, many mothers thought their child’s weight problem was a matter of heredity rather than diet and exercise.
Mothers also highly valued a child’s happiness, consistently ranking the importance of “being happy with family” above good health, according to Crawford and her colleagues.
They suggest that nutrition counseling might help Latina mothers more if it connects health to happiness, and focuses on the positive effects of nutritious foods and exercise instead of the consequences of being overweight.
SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, March 2004.
Revision date: June 20, 2011
Last revised: by Tatiana Kuznetsova, D.M.D.