For Some Child Refugees, A Journey From Food Scarcity To Obesity

Jan 13, 2015

Researchers with the Hasbro Children’s Hospital Pediatric Refugee Health Program in Providence have found that the longer child refugees stay in the U.S., the greater the chance they'll become overweight or obese.

In a paper published in this month's issue of the Rhode Island Medical Journal, researchers Jessica Heney, MD, Camia Dimock, MD, Jennifer Friedman, MD, PhD, and Carol Lewis, MD found that pediatric patients in the hospital's refugee health program increased their BMI (Body Mass Index) within the first year of resettlement and, for some, each year after that. Their findings:

"...the baseline prevalence of overweight and obese rose from 14.1% and 3.2% at initial intake to 22.8% and 12.7% at year 3, respectively. Overall, the total prevalence of overweight or obesity more than doubled from 17.3% initially to 35.4% by year 3, with the most substantial increase occurring by year 1 post-resettlement." (my emphasis)

What's going on? The researchers say there are several factors probably at play here, including evidence that not getting enough nutrients while in utero can predispose kids to obesity later in life. Also:

"Cost, availability, transportation, and other barriers to procuring nutritious foods, as well as developing a taste preference for American foods, have also been theorized to lead to unhealthy eating habits."

Their daily routines may not include enough exercise after they've resettled in the US. But there may be other factors contributing to rising rates of obesity,

"...including parents having less time to prepare meals, unsafe neighborhoods lending to sedentary lifestyles, trauma related to the migration process...."

The researchers note that Rhode Island welcomed more than 1000 refugees between 2007-2012. Their study looked at just under 200 pediatric patients. It may not seem like a big number, but this story is indicative of a bigger picture. Our refugee and immigrant neighbors aren't necessarily able to close the chapter on all of their hardships, whatever they were, once they've found a place to live and settled in. There is, apparently, a longer road ahead for them, full of more challenges, not least of which is obtaining better health.