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UH professor’s research sheds light on underlying factors of childhood obesity

There is a lack of research about the issue of obesity of mostly Hispanic and African-American adolescents in minority groups, but a health educator at UH has unearthed clues in her research on what are the early causes of eating behaviors and the implications of weight-related teasing.

UH professor at the College of Education Norma Olvera recently published her research on childhood obesity in the Journal of Early Adolescence. As a result, she has founded the program BOUNCE, Behavior Opportunities Uniting Nutrition Counseling and Exercise, in an effort to help adolescent girls learn a healthy lifestyle. Olvera discovered one of the leading factors in childhood obesity in the girls, she studied, was teasing from other children.

“We saw a lot of the girls who participated in our programs (say) they would not go to school,” Olvera said. “They get ‘sick’ because of the amount of bullying.”

UH Health and Nutrition professor Ann Svendsen-Sanchez explained that obese children are less likely to participate in gym class or school due to their insecurities. The students often have their parents write them excuses to avoid facing their classmates.

Olvera’s study centered around a group of 135 adolescent girls. Of those girls, 81 percent were considered obese, all wished to be thinner, and all were 11-years-old. Olvera found that one out of every two girls reported being teased about their weight.

“There is a multifaceted approach,“ Olvera said. “Obviously, there is issue in the environment, like eating habits, (but) the ones affected more are the poorest.“

Most of the girls in the study came from low-income backgrounds, which can limit families’ ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle and causes obesity in children, according to Olvera. Either both parents worked and couldn’t make healthy meals and instead bought cheap, processed foods in bulk that are typically high in fat and sugar.

Another contributing issue was the lack of physical inactivity. Approximately 60 percent of the girls did not do any sort of activity outside the home, according to Olvera’s findings. Another factor was the underlying problem of poor communication between family members, schools and the girls.

“We as adults need to be role models,” Svendsen-Sanchez said. “I mean, a lot of parents don’t eat vegetables, and it’s not a big surprise their kids don’t eat vegetables.”

Svendsen-Sanchez advises families to stay away from frozen food. She believes families need to get back to the basics, cooking from scratch and make cooking a family activity, in order to entice children to eat healthy. Parents should involve their children in activities outside the home and away from sedentary activities, such as video games and television.

While these factors explain the reason behind the obesity, Olvera found teasing caused low self-esteem, disengagement and even weight-control eating behaviors. Approximately 70 percent of the girls admitted to implementing weight control behaviors due to their dissatisfaction with their bodies. In some extreme cases, 12 percent of the girls admitted to purging and binging, the act of overeating followed by regurgitating. Olvera hopes her research will shed light on childhood obesity and inspire action in the community.

“I think there should be zero tolerance,” Olvera said. “It should start in the family, in the school. There also has to be a very proactive approach.”

Since her research was published, Olvera has been contacted by many, such as Telemundo and Huffington Post to speak about her work and how it has increased awareness on an important issue.

“Dr. Olvera’s research has noteworthy importance in addressing the nation’s obesity epidemic and directly serves to educate the Houston community,” College of Education Director of Communications Brandie Cleaver said.

Olvera has dedicated her career to researching obesity in minorities with the hopes of teaching people how to correctly address the issue of childhood obesity. She said she hopes her research will help girls and encourage them to pursue their dreams.

“(Obesity) has disempowered them,” Olvera said. “ I want to empower girls to feel good about themselves because when you feel good about yourself, you can do more.”

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