Jose Nino loved to eat tacos de barbacoa. In fact, he loved them so much that two to three times a week he would polish off several in one sitting. His lifestyle also frequently included tostadas, burritos, and empanadas – but little exercise. By 2001, Mr. Nino's cholesterol had surged past 200 mg/dL – considered borderline high risk – and his weight ballooned to 270 pounds on his 5-foot, 10-inch frame.
"I was goloso in how I ate," says Mr. Nino, a former president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and current head of consulting firm El Nino Group. "But I really enjoyed it."
Mr. Nino, whose mother also had high cholesterol, was putting his health at risk. Medical experts point to lifestyles with diets rich in meat and starch-based dishes and low on exercise – coupled with hereditary propensities – as a primary cause of heart disease. In fact, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for Hispanics. In addition, Mexican-American women are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease than non-Hispanic white women, according to the American Heart Association.
The association estimates that nearly 30 percent of Mexican-American adults have cardiovascular disease, which refers to all conditions involving the heart, blood vessels, and arteries – including stroke. High cholesterol and blood pressure are risk factors for heart disease. By eliminating these risks, adults can lower their chance of heart disease, medical experts say.
Yet more than 50 percent of Mexican-American men and nearly 45 percent of women have total blood cholesterol levels of 200 mg/dL or higher. Levels of 200 to 239 are considered borderline high risk, while 240 mg/dL or greater is considered high risk, according to the association.
The data for hypertension is also significant. Among Mexican Americans age 20 or older, nearly 30 percent have high blood pressure.
"All of these diseases can be controlled by a good diet and more exercise and a better lifestyle," says Dr. Rene Rodríguez, president of the Interamerican College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Complicating the issue for Hispanic executives also may be a drive to succeed that can put their health at risk. Medical experts note that Hispanic executives may feel they have to go the extra mile to achieve goals, pursuing their careers during the day and then attending receptions and networking events on the side. This leaves little time for exercise or relaxation.
"You get sucked into 'what is good for my career' rather than 'what is good for me,' " says Dr. Elena Rios, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association.
Such stress, combined with a lack of physical activity, could account for the rise in high blood pressure among Mexican Americans, medical experts say. While the incidence of high blood pressure has dropped since the 1970s for the non-Hispanic white population, it has increased for Mexican Americans, many health professionals note.
Medical experts recommend exercise as a way to keep cholesterol, obesity, and high blood pressure in check, but many Hispanics appear not to be taking notice. More than 50 percent of men and nearly 60 percent of women age 18 or older do not take part in leisure-time physical activity, according to the heart association.
"Latinos tend to … exercise less and they do not follow a good meal plan," says Dr. Enrique Caballero, director of the Joslin Latino Diabetes Initiative at Harvard Medical School. And, adds Dr. Frank Meza, physician in charge at Kaiser's East Los Angeles offices, many executives fail to make exercise a priority. "I tell them they'll have time once they have cholesterol and a stroke," Dr. Meza says.
For Mr. Nino, the consequences of his lifestyle weren't quite so dramatic: He had no outward physical symptoms when he was diagnosed with high cholesterol four years ago. Such a situation is typical, experts say, noting that hypertension and elevated cholesterol levels often go undiagnosed because they do not present strong warning signs until it's too late.
To treat Mr. Nino's high cholesterol, doctors prescribed Lipitor. But he didn't like the side effects, which included shakiness. On the advice of a friend, Mr. Nino decided to change his lifestyle and diet. He began working out three times a week on a NordicTrack and walking whenever he could.
Ultimately, exercise and diet must be combined, says Kaiser's Dr. Meza. He recommends diets low in animal fat and high in fruits and vegetables. Individuals also should work out, putting in 45 minutes of aerobic exercise like walking or running each day. "I have a rule of thumb," Dr. Meza says. "If you don't have time to work out today, then you don't have time to eat."
Mr. Nino also altered his eating habits. He cut down on red meat and began eating fruits and vegetables every day, including a daily grapefruit and oatmeal two to three times a week. Now, at age 48, the changes have helped Mr. Nino's cholesterol level fall to less than 200 mg/dL. He also has dropped 40 pounds.
Moderation, Mr. Nino says, is the key to maintaining good health. "You just watch yourself," he says. "You can eat barbacoa. But you don't have to have 10 tacos. Instead, you have one or two."
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
National Alliance for Hispanic Health
The National Hispanic Family Health Helpline
American Heart Association
National Women's Health Network
The Cholesterol Low Down
The American Heart Association's national cholesterol initiative. The program, which has enrolled more than 141,000 participants since 1998, is sponsored by Pfizer Inc.
www.americanheart.org/cld or www.s2mw.com/cholesterollowdown/
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