More than a third of 3-year-olds in low-income households in major U.S. cities are overweight or obese, according to a new study that supports the notion that the struggle with obesity often begins in early childhood.
Latino children were most at risk, with 45% either overweight or obese, compared with 32% of white and African American children.
The study's authors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison also identified several practices that may protect children from excessive weight gain, including breast-feeding for at least six months and not allowing children to take a bottle to bed.
Although some nutrition experts hailed the results as a call to action, even using the word "obese" to describe the very young is contentious.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not refer to anyone younger than 20 as obese, because rapid growth early in life makes it difficult to compare desirable weights for children and adults. Instead, the CDC uses the terms "overweight" or "at risk of overweight" for children at the upper end of their peer group's body-mass index, or BMI, a number used to gauge the relationship of weight to height.
In contrast, the American Obesity Assn. holds that the same terminology should be used for children and adults, in part because heavy children are more likely to become obese adults.
Despite such differences, both organizations agree that more children are becoming overweight, creating a national health threat. The percentage of U.S. children in the 95th percentile for BMI -- the definition of obese -- has more than doubled over the last two decades, to nearly 19% in 2004.
The new study, published online in the American Journal of Public Health, came up with even higher numbers for its target group of low-income children randomly selected from 20 major cities.
In all, 35% of the 3-year-olds were overweight or obese -- a striking figure, several experts said.