Obesity Risks Before Birth

Winslow, AZ – One out of every three American children is overweight. First Lady Michelle Obama has launched a campaign to address this obesity epidemic among school children. But new research suggests the country needs a program that targets kids and mothers much earlier. From the Changing America Desk in Flagstaff Laurel Morales reports on one such effort on the Navajo Nation.

SFX: baby Ariana coos

Aretina Chee unstraps her baby from a cradle board where she's been napping.

CHEE: Wanna say hi?

The Chees live north of Winslow on the Navajo Reservation at one end of an eternal maze of dirt roads.

Aretina just had her second baby three months ago and she's having trouble losing weight.

CHEE: I try everything I can. I try doing my exercise. I see it not going down and so I just give up. (0:15)

Chee's faced with the dilemma that so many mothers face -- finding the time to take care of herself.

CHEE:...in the evenings I have both of them. One's crying one's running around. I'm trying to get dinner ready it is kinda hard so. I barely get in the time to get the shower sometimes (laughs). (0:15)

Three-month-old Ariana has lots of black hair, huge cheeks and wears clothes big enough for a baby twice her age. Mom's habits during and prior to pregnancy may have affected her baby's weight.

That's according to research published in the journal Pediatrics last spring.

Mona Patterson is the diabetes and pregnancy educator at Winslow Indian Health Care Center. She says poor eating habits and obesity can harm the baby.

PATTERSON: What we know now is the fetus will lay down an abnormal amount of fat cells during the pregnancy, which is what contributes to the baby being very large. (0:11)

And Patterson says this predisposes the child to obesity for the rest of his life. This is a potential problem for women like Diana Dixon. She was diagnosed with gestational diabetes in her third pregnancy.

DIXON: I kept telling my mom and my family when I get to 160 I'll lose weight. When I get to 170 I'll lose weight. When I get to 200 I'll start losing weight. But I never did I just kept going and going. (0:12)

She's now pregnant with twins and worried about their health so she's checking her blood sugar regularly and trying to improve her diet and exercise routine. A program at the Winslow Indian Health Care Center called Centering Pregnancy is helping her stay on track.

EARSING: We want this whole half to be loaded up with what? Vegetables
Beverly Earsing is a clinical dietician and a lactation consultant.

EARSING: Some still think that a 10 inch piece of fry bread with some mutton on it and some lettuce is the best meal in town. You don't want to change their culture you want to appreciate where they've come from but you want them to move past some of these habits. (0:19)

Earsing says access and the cost of healthy food in remote areas like the Navajo Reservation can be a problem. And they face another challenge. In this matriarchal society Earsing says these pregnant women often hear advice from their own mothers and grandmothers.

EARSING: You need to get on the couch and take it easy slow down you're pregnant.' You're eating for two make sure you have seconds and thirds every time you're eating.' (0:11)

Earsing says correcting weight problems early in life is the key to breaking the generational cycle of obesity on the reservation. But there is a lot of work to do. The federal government says more than half of Native American women are overweight.

In Winslow, I'm Laurel Morales.