March 20, 2009

Winning Our Fight against Obesity

By Vince Vasquez

San Diego may be known for its active lifestyles and recreation-friendly environment, but a new survey reveals that our local Latino community may be confronting a looming public health epidemic. New steps taken today can bring our families closer to a healthier, brighter future.

According to data collected from a Competitive Edge Research & Communication (CERC) survey in January 2009, nearly 6 out of 10 Latino adults in the City of San Diego are estimated to be above their optimal weight, ranging from “overweight” to “extremely obese” on the Body Mass Index scale (BMI). In the survey, Hispanic respondents were also the most likely of all ethnic groups to acknowledge currently having an eating disorder (13%), as well as know another person with an eating disorder (54%). These numbers aren’t likely to surprise many public health experts; according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, more than 73% of Mexican-American adults nationwide were overweight from 2001-2004, an increase of nearly 20% from the late 1970’s. However, the root causes of this phenomenon are still a mystery.

Some experts have theorized that there may be a genetic predisposition to obesity among Latinos, whose bodies adapted thousands of years ago to fluctuating food supplies in arid and tropical climates. In agricultural societies, those who could quickly turn food into nourishing fat had a survival edge in lean years when crops failed. However, with the rapid urbanization of Latinos among all socio-economic classes, growing food security and diversity, and the rise of television and sedentary behavior, our genetic enhancements now leave us exposed to new health risks such as type II diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Those most in jeopardy are Hispanic youth; the lifetime risk of Americans born in 2002 to develop diabetes is 1 in 3, but for Latinos the chances are 1 in 2.

In San Diego County, childhood obesity is an alarming growing trend – according to state documents, the percentage of overweight 9th graders in our region nearly doubled from 1998-99 to 2004-05. San Diego Latinos understand the importance of this issue. According to the CERC survey, Hispanic adults view childhood obesity as a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem (86% combined), higher than the citywide average. If we are to expect our children to make better choices than us, we must set a clear example of personal responsibility today. One place where parents can begin to address the problem is with confronting unhealthy eating habits in many of our Latino families.

“Binge eating” is a serious health condition where overeating becomes compulsive, creating feelings of powerlessness and shame in those who cannot stop consuming food. In CERC’s survey, 57% of Latinos were either unsure of what the term was, or had never heard of it, compared to 26% of Whites, and 36% city-wide. Once explained what the eating disorder is, 38% of Latino adults reported having eating binges at least once a month, a rate that’s nearly double the citywide average (20%). Showing more self-control and discouraging the acceptance of after-dinner eating can help children understand the importance of eating only when they’re hungry.

Latinos must also focus on building healthier everyday habits, such as purchasing more fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, or following a regular gym routine. It’s difficult for anyone to stay committed to a disciplined food and exercise regimen, but staying fit and healthy can be fun and interesting, as families can take the opportunity to try new ingredients, recipes and recreational activities together. Community leaders can also play an important role in encouraging healthier lifestyles in Latino San Diego. In 2008, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett launched an anti-obesity initiative challenging his constituents to lose a cumulative one million pounds in 2008, encouraging residents to sign up through a website where they can track their weight loss, calculate their Body Mass Index, and learn about healthy food recipes and nearby fitness centers. One year later, nearly 26,000 residents have signed up online, losing over 306,000 pounds in that time. Mayor Sanders and the City Council should challenge residents today to join them in making a stronger community for all to enjoy by losing weight and staying fit.

Obesity and diabetes may be ongoing threats to Hispanic health, but they can be overcome with determination and an open mind. Fatty and carbohydrate-rich foods should not be allowed to define our proud culinary traditions, and family recipes can be gently modified and substituted with healthier ingredients. In the 21st century, Latinos can continue to preserve their heritage while also ensuring that they are alive to pass it down to the next generation. To capture the competitive spirit and imagination of a widening population, local leaders should consider the merits of transforming America’s Finest City into America’s Fittest City.

Vince Vasquez is the senior policy analyst at the San Diego Institute for Policy Research.

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