November 22, 2006

Latino children are more at risk of developing diabetes

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

November is American Diabetes Month, and it is a good time to promote awareness among Latino parents about the risks their children face.

According to the American Diabetes Association, “diabetes is a serious disease that affects the body’s ability to produce or respond properly to insulin, a hormone that allows blood glucose (sugar) to enter the cells of the body and be used for energy.”

Unfortunately, diabetes’s prevalence in the Latino community is high, and it’s also taking its toll among Latino children in San Diego County.

Latinos are twice as likely to develop diabetes than the White population in the U.S., according to statistics from the American Diabetes Association.

Although there are no specific numbers, the rate of Latino children with diabetes is increasing in the county, said Dr. Gregory Talavera, professor of public health at San Diego State University and medical director at the San Ysidro Health Center.

Two of the main reasons in the increase of childhood diabetes among Latinos are due to genetics and an increase in childhood obesity he said.

The genetic theory states that Latinos that have a major Indigenous background are more likely to develop diabetes, Talavera said.

“If your family’s Mexican heritage comes from the various Indigenous areas of Mexico, you’re most likely to have diabetes than, let’s say, a Latino from Spain or Argentina,” he said.

This genetic predisposition to diabetes together with living in the U.S. society with a fast-food diet increases the risk of diabetes among Mexican-Americans, Talavera said.

“Latino child obesity is higher than in white children,” he pointed out.

The two most important things that parents can do to prevent diabetes in their children is to increase physical activity and at same time decrease time in front of the television, videogames, and computers, Talavera said.

Latinos that live on a budget and in low-income areas are more at risk of developing the condition, he added.

“Poverty and low-income are very strong predictors of obesity and diabetes also,” he said. “Society needs to build more parks, make the barrio more safe so that children can play outside, provide more after school programs.”

Talavera, who’s research focuses on Mexican-American health in San Diego County, said that the Latino diet, if prepared in a healthy way, can help in the prevention of diabetes.

“The two basic ingredients in our diet, such as beans and rice, are very healthy. But you need to look at the preparation. Instead of using lard to prepare refried beans, you can boil them. Boiled beans are good,” he said.

Another aspect to watch is portion sizes.

“Latinos tend to serve the same big portions to adults as to their children,” he said. “Parents are not very educated about calories.”

He recommended serving children small portions, and only serve them more if they ask for seconds.

And the basics, he said, is to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables instead of junk food as snacks.

Talavera pointed out that there are many programs available for Latinos.

He cited the work of the American Diabetes Association, which has a huge section of information in English and Spanish that focuses in Latinos.

“Many Latinos feel guilty spending time and money on personal health. They feel selfish putting their own health care ahead of their family’s needs. The opposite should be true,” states the association’s webpage. “The American Diabetes Association is here for your family, but we want to bring the message home that you should take care of your diabetes or prevent yourself from developing it, for your family’s sake too. Your family needs you to be healthy and feeling your best, so that you can be there for them. That’s why the new name for ADA’s Latino Initiatives health campaign is Por tu familia — or ‘For Your Family’ in English.”

(For more information on diabetes in general, and among children in particular, visit the American Diabetes Association webpage at www.diabetes.org. Click on “American Diabetes Month” as well as on “For Latinos.”)

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