Tipping the scales: reversing the obesity epidemic among Latino children

$2.1 million from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports Salud America!

tipping scaleObesity is deadly and growing in the United States. Heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer are just some of the diseases linked to obesity. By 2030 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that 42 percent of Americans will be obese.

Children, especially Hispanic children who are part of the largest U.S. minority group, are quickly falling victim to this deadly trend. Hispanic children aged 2 to 19 are more likely to be obese or overweight than white or black children. The CDC indicates that 50 percent of severe obesity in adults is a consequence of obesity during childhood.

Thanks to a $2.1 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the UT Health Science Center San Antonio is leading national efforts to prevent childhood obesity in Hispanic children and to influence policy and create environmental solutions to the problem.

Their gift is supporting Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children. The program is headquartered at the Institute for Health Promotion Research (IHPR) within the School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center.

Amelie Ramirez, Dr.P.H., is director of Salud America! and founding director of the Institute for Health Promotion Research.

“We are so grateful to the generosity of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,” Dr. Ramirez said. “With their support, Salud America! will continue to be the catalyst for reversing a deadly disease afflicting our nation’s and our future’s most precious resource – our children.”

Mondragon family

Grant expands program, focuses on advocacy

Launched in 2007, Salud America! built a network of researchers, academics, policymakers and community leaders across the United States to address and reverse the obesity epidemic among Hispanic children and adolescents. In addition, a network of multimedia experts produced online resources to raise awareness of the latest research on Latino childhood obesity and educate Hispanic community leaders, parents and youth about the importance of healthy nutrition and physical activity. These are communicated through a variety of e-communications, blogs and social media.

The new RWJF grant will allow Salud America! to expand this 2,000-member national network and focus on developing an innovative system to support, inform and empower researchers, policymakers and the public to advocate for policy changes that will help reverse the obesity epidemic.

Success stories encourage action

Shari Barkin, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., is among the 20 Salud America! grantees who conducted research focused on Latino childhood obesity. Her study focused on 132 Hispanic families with children aged 3 to 5 in Nashville’s Davidson County. Some families were introduced to their community recreation center for routine physical activity, while others had the same access but were not brought inside and educated about using the facility for fitness and well-being.

“What we found was that exposure to and routine use of recreation centers by Latinos led to sustained use for physical activity one year later by both parents and their young children,” Dr. Barkin said. “Activity habits set in early childhood can profoundly influence lifelong paths for health. Our goal is to encourage policymakers to create programs that encourage Latino families to walk through the door and learn how to use their community recreation centers. It’s not just about building or refurbishing recreation facilities. Healthy lifestyle programs targeted at children as young as preschool age have enormous potential to prevent obesity.”

Dr. Barkin and her team shared their results with the Metro Parks and Recreation Board of Nashville, Tenn., the Mayor’s Council on Child Wellness, and key community and policymaking partners.

Juan Carlos Mondragon, 32, and his family participated in Dr. Barkin’s study from 2009 to 2011. He and his wife, Irma, and their two children, Leah, 7, and Shayla, 4, were given free access to and educated about their neighborhood recreation facility.

“Going to the center helped us exercise together, as a family,” Mondragon said. “And we learned about eating healthier too. I know it’s going to help us in the long run so we don’t become overweight. There should be more programs like this one. And I hope to see more sidewalks, better parks and more bicycle paths in our neighborhood in the future, especially for our children.”

Local study involves churches

In San Antonio, Meizi He, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of health and kinesiology at The University of Texas at San Antonio, conducted Salud America!research at nine churches on the city’s West Side. She and her team conducted interviews with Latino church leaders and church-attending children aged 10 to 17 and their parents. Researchers learned that church leaders and families were aware of the obesity epidemic and its dangerous health consequences. They identified the need to connect health education with a spiritual dimension through clergy role models; health sermons; Sunday school and Bible-study sessions; after-school and summer camp physical-activity programs; and healthy-cooking classes.

“We found that gathering the ideas and insights of Latino church leaders and congregation members on the issue of childhood obesity is the first step in developing effective faith-based, obesity-prevention strategies, as well as future policy and environmental changes that will help improve the health of Latino children,” Dr. He said. She and her team shared their findings with the City of San Antonio Metropolitan Health District and other community stakeholders to encourage support. Their research has garnered additional funding from the San Antonio Life Sciences Institute and the Baptist Health Foundation of San Antonio to develop and implement the faith-based, obesity prevention program, “Building a Healthy Temple,” in the predominantly Hispanic communities throughout the city.

Advocating for change

Dr. Ramirez said Salud America!, fueled by these research success stories, will unite a team of research experts, Internet news curators and multimedia content producers to produce a continuous stream of evidence-based information, news and training that researchers, policymakers and the public can use to advocate for changes toward reversing the obesity epidemic. The information will be provided in easily accessible formats such as an online advocacy support platform (with advocacy and policy news, templates, resources, role models and ways to get involved), e-communications, blogs, and social and mass media.

“We believe this platform will empower individuals and groups to advocate directly for evidence-based governmental and corporate policies addressing Latino childhood obesity,” Dr. Ramirez said. “We’re excited to continue our work. We hope everyone will join our effort because ensuring a healthy future for America will depend largely on reversing the obesity epidemic in the Latino population.”

Salud America! translates to Health America!

Building on its successful research, Salud America! is now turning its attention to a first-of-its-kind effort to deliver and interpret scientific evidence to empower Latinos to advocate for healthy policies. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) focuses on six policy priorities that evidence suggests will have the greatest and longest-lasting impact on children.

To see the RWJF’s six policy priorities, visit

Visit the IHPR online at or follow its blog at

For more information about Salud America!, visit


Cliff Despress, in the Institute for Health Promotion Research (IHPR) in the School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center, contributed to this story.

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