Racial divergence in adiposity during adolescence: The NHLBI Growth and Health Study

Pediatrics. 2001 Mar;107(3):E34. doi: 10.1542/peds.107.3.e34.


Background: Black women are particularly vulnerable to obesity, with a prevalence rate of >50%. The higher mortality and morbidity from cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes have been attributed, in part, to their obesity. In recent years, a particular public health concern is the increasing secular trend in obesity with an even greater racial disparity, especially in girls and women. Between the early 1960s and late 1980s, the prevalence of obesity tripled in young black girls 6 to 11 years of age, while it doubled in white girls. Similarly, both overweight and obesity in adolescent girls 12 to 17 years of age also increased, with a greater increase again seen in adolescent black girls. This secular trend in obesity with a greater increase in black girls signals a potentially grave future chronic disease burden on black women, which is already higher than in white women. The increasing occurrence in children and adolescents of noninsulin-dependent diabetes, traditionally viewed as an adult-onset condition, may be a consequence of the currently high prevalence of obesity in American youth. Not surprisingly, this condition is seen more frequently among black youths. Prepubescent black girls are generally leaner than age-comparable white girls, but by 20 years of age, black women are considerably heavier than are white women. Thus, it is assumed that the racial disparity in adiposity evolves during adolescence. However, the specific age at which this occurs and underlying factors are yet to be identified because of the current paucity of longitudinal cohort data.

Objectives: In 1985, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) initiated a 10-year longitudinal multicenter study (the NHLBI Growth and Health Study [NGHS]) to investigate the development of obesity in black and white girls during adolescence and its environmental, psychosocial, and cardiovascular disease risk factor correlates. The purpose of this report is to examine the natural history of adiposity and weight accretion during adolescence in a biracial cohort of girls to investigate the evolution of the racial divergence in adiposity and to examine the relationships between increases in adiposity and pubertal maturation, energy intake, and physical activity.

Participants and setting: A total of 2379 black (51%) and white (49%) girls, 9 to 10 years of age, were recruited from public and parochial schools in Richmond, California, and Cincinnati, Ohio, and from families enrolled in a large health maintenance organization in the Washington, DC area. Participant eligibility was limited to girls and their parents who declared themselves as being either black or white and who lived in racially concordant households. DESIGN AND STATISTICAL ANALYSIS: The NGHS is a multicenter prospective study of black and white girls with annual visits from 9 to 10 years of age through 18 to 19 years of age. The follow-up rate was 89% at the 10th annual visit. Skinfold measurements were obtained at the triceps, suprailiac, and subscapular sites with Holtain calipers. Sexual maturation was assessed by trained registered nurses. The onset of menarche was ascertained annually by questionnaire. All clinical assessments were conducted using a common protocol by centrally trained staff. Longitudinal regression (generalized estimating equations) models were used to examine the relationship between adiposity and race, age, pubertal maturation, daily energy intake, and physical activity.

Main outcome measures: The main outcome measure was the sum of skinfolds (SSF) at the triceps, subscapular, and suprailiac sites as an index of adiposity for comparison between the 2 racial groups. Body mass index (BMI; weight in kilograms divided by height in meters, squared) distributions were examined by age and race.

Results: Racial differences in SSF, unadjusted for maturation, were evident at 10 years of age. For each chronological age, there was a higher proportion of black girls with more advanced pubertal maturation than white girls. The 15th percentiles for SSF were similar and remained thus throughout the study. The median for SSF for black girls, although similar to the median SSF of white girls at 9 years of age, became greater for black girls at 12 years of age (36 mm vs 32.5 mm) and at age 19 years the difference was 6 mm (49.5 mm vs 43.5 mm). In contrast, the difference in the 85th as well as the 95th percentile values for SSF were substantially higher in black girls at all ages (9 mm and 10 mm, or 18% and 15%, respectively, at age 9 years) and these racial differences widened with age (20 mm and 26 mm, or 25% and 24%, respectively, by age 19 years). The racial difference in the median BMI increased from 0.4 to 2.3 kg/m(2) between ages 9 and 19 years. Unlike SSF at the 15th percentile, the BMI for lean 9-year-old black girls was ~3% higher than whites. (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED)

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue*
  • Adolescent / physiology*
  • Black People*
  • Body Mass Index
  • Child
  • Energy Intake
  • Exercise
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Obesity / epidemiology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Puberty
  • Regression Analysis
  • White People