Over the last couple of decades, it's no secret Americans have become chubbier. And while experts say those extra pounds often lead to hefty health problems, such as heart attacks or strokes, they also say not enough is being done to alert the Hispanic population, which is especially hard hit.
Almost one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For Mexican Americans, who make up 9 percent of the U.S. population, the figure is nearly 37 percent. Hispanic children in the United States also tend to be heavier than other American kids, making them more likely to grow up to be overweight adults, who are at an increased risk for diseases such as diabetes and certain cancers.
"We need to try to prevent obesity so we can try and prevent the onset of some of these chronic diseases that impact quality of life and in some cases cause disability," says Dianna Densmore of the CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity. More than 110,000 deaths in the United States every year are caused by obesity, according to the CDC, and health problems attributed to obesity have been estimated to cost $75 billion annually.
Now that health experts have raised the alarm about an obesity epidemic, efforts are under way to address the problem, from fitness programs, to healthy eating guidelines, and even efforts to design communities so that residents can get around on foot rather than sitting in their cars fuming at traffic jams.
However, Dr. Carlos Campos, a Texas physician who serves on the American Diabetes Association's national subcommittee for Latino initiatives, says little is being done to address the problem of obesity among Hispanics in the United States.
"We're going to have to use our voice politically and socially to say, 'Hey, we matter,'" he says.
The combination of too little exercise and an abundance of cheap, unhealthy food has wreaked havoc on Americans' waistlines. Hispanics living in the United States are more likely to be overweight or obese than those in other countries, studies have shown. The difference can arise in a single generation, Dr. Campos says, as immigrant families adopt American ways, overindulging in fast food and driving everywhere.
Dealing with the growing obesity problem is tough, health experts say, because the causes are complex and include genetic, cultural, environmental, and behavioral factors.
"We cannot change our genes, neither can we change our culture nor our heritage," says Jose Fernandez, associate professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "But we can definitely change our behaviors and practices. Education is the key."
Efforts to address the obesity problem must target both individuals and communities, Ms. Densmore says.
"We need to look at schools, we need to look at work sites, we need to look at community organizations, and we also need to look at our built environment," she adds. "For instance, do people have safe places to walk around their neighborhoods? And, of course, is there access to affordable nutritious food?"
Dr. Campos says, "I think it's going to start with us educating our children in kindergarten, elementary, and grade school." That way, he says, they can help their families have a healthier life.
"They can say, 'Maybe that flour tortilla is not a good thing to have. Maybe we should be switching to a wheat tortilla, mom,'" Dr. Campos suggests. "I think it's going to take a generation to turn that around."
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