In Your Blood or Guts?

By Jonathan Adams Jun 16, 2008

Photo credit: James Erin de Jauregui TIME Magazine covers the effects of genetics and the environment on obesity in children of color.

You’re a native-American baby born into the Oglala Sioux tribe, living on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. There are a lot of things that are going to make life a challenge for you, but one of the most perilous will be your weight. Chances are very good that your parents already have a weight problem; obesity is rampant in the 30,000-member community, and half the residents over the age of 40 have Type 2 diabetes. Their genes–and yours, of course–are part of the problem: researchers theorize that Native Americans have a higher than average tendency to gain and store weight, a protection in times of famines past but a risk factor in an America of caloric abundance. Even without this so-called thrifty gene, you’d face an uphill battle to stay trim. Like many Americans in rural areas, the poorer Oglala Sioux have far less access to fresh fruits and vegetables than those in more connected settlements. This means you’re likely to be filling up on high-calorie, processed foods, especially since fatty foods are cheaper than healthy ones, and your family–like more than half the families on the reservation–is probably poor. What’s more, the calories you consume stick around, since you’re not doing much to burn them off. Your school is probably too far away for you to reach it on foot. Playmates may be similarly distant. And don’t even think about parks or playgrounds–multiple studies over the past several years have shown that low-income communities tend to have fewer recreational areas. Though it’s all outside your control, nearly every aspect of your environment is pushing you toward gaining weight–which is why 43% of Native-American 5-year-olds in South Dakota are overweight or obese.

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