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Obesity Rates for Poor Children Higher in O.C., New Study Finds

Health: Report also says local low-income youths are less likely to be underweight or anemic.


SANTA ANA — A higher percentage of low-income children in Orange County are overweight compared with their counterparts elsewhere in California and the country, according to a report released by a state health and disability prevention program.

The survey showed that more Latino children are overweight than any other ethnic group.

But while the incidence of obesity is higher in Orange County than elsewhere, according to the report, local children are less likely than state and national averages to be underweight, short or anemic.

"According to most of our indicators, Orange County is relatively advantaged for health over all the other [areas] in the United States," Dr. Gerald Wagner, the county's deputy health officer, said of the report compiled by the Child Health and Disability Prevention program.

The program provides health care for low-income children statewide.

Wagner said that although the survey dealt with children, its findings probably could be applied to adults as well.

The Orange County part of the survey was based on statistics gathered during 161,230 routine medical examinations conducted in 1994 involving about 100,000 children from birth through age 18, Wagner said.

While overall the health outlook for the children was positive, he said, the survey showed 13.8% to be overweight--0.8% higher than the state average and 3.8% higher than the national average.

The highest percentage of overweight children--14.5%--was found among Latinos, with the lowest incidence--8.2%--recorded among Asians and Pacific Islanders.

According to the 1990 census, Orange County's population is 65% white, 23% Latino, 10% Asian and 2% black.

Wagner attributed the relatively high number of overweight children in Orange County to the way that people live.

"Probably some of it is related to the relative advantage we have in Orange County where people have ready access to food," he said. "Perhaps there's a lifestyle here which doesn't promote the healthiest eating habits."

Regarding the number of Latino children who are overweight, he said, "perhaps it's related to social factors and how people view weight, or it may be related to ethnic diets."

None of which has yet been documented by any hard data.

"Obesity has genetic and lifestyle components, including what foods are offered in the home and the amount and type of physical exercise," said Michele van Eyken, a registered dietitian and nutrition services program supervisor for the county Health Care Agency. "The problem is probably due to one of these factors, but we can't tell which one. Eating is one thing you can't ask people not to do."

What's needed, she said, are follow-up studies to determine how to solve the problem. "What we need to do next is start looking into the whys and whos and hows," she said.


Pound Problems

Low- income children in Orange County are slightly more likely to be overweight than are those either statewide or nationwide, a trend that has continued since 1990. Here are the 1994 comparisons for children through 17 years old:

Orange County: 13.8%

California: 13%

United States: 10%


Ethnic Differences

The incidence of overweight children in the early school years- 5 to 9 years old- is highest among Latino children. The Orange County comparison:

Latino: 17.8%

White: 11.6%

Asian*: 8.3%

Black: 7.6%

* Other: 12.2%

* Includes Pacific Islanders

Source: Child Health and Disability Prevention program.

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