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Latino Weight Boom on the Horizon

Obesity rates are rising in several countries. Flickr photo/Keith McDuffee.

If we consulted the health statistics kept by the rich countries club, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, we might not be too surprised to find that the United States has the highest rate of obesity, at 30.6 percent. What country, would you guess, is number two? It’s Mexico, with an adult obesity rate of 23 percent.

That’s a new development on a couple of levels. It’s a sign of Mexico’s economic progress that the country is a member of the OECD. It is perhaps a symptom of that new found wealth that Mexicans are digging their graves with their knives and forks almost as fast as their NAFTA neighbors next door. The old verities about American obesity and immigrant health — that newcomers arrived slim and became fat after taking on the American way of eating — are falling by the wayside as obesity rates creep higher in “sending” countries.

A program I host on HITN TV, Destination Casa Blanca, took a look at obesity and Latinos in the United States. A stunning number of Latinos in the United States, from the Caribbean, Central America, and South America are obese or overweight, and their U.S.-born children are growing up with weight problems. On the first anniversary of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, we asked, are the numbers moving in the right direction?

The short answer is … sorta. The rate of increase in weight problems has slowed. Schools are taking gradual steps toward improving the meals they serve, and including more physical education in the required curriculum. But the trends that push on weight problems have not changed: increasingly sedentary youth, the easy availability of highly caloric food, less walking and biking to school.

Pick up the paper, and you’ll see all kinds of solutions. Student market gardens have sprung up around the country. Cooking classes for kids seek to teach new food habits and deliver basic information on nutrition and healthy eating. However those programs are still pilots and experiments in most places, small-scale and low-impact in too many places. Away from the bib lettuce and kale is the real world of school systems struggling to keep unit costs for feeding students low. This results in chicken tenders, french fries, pizzas and soda.

Maria Gomez, executive director of Mary’s Center in Washington D.C., pointed out the association of a little more weight with success and affluence was one barrier to slimming down. Grandparents are happy to see fat babies. People new to the country who may have been food insecure back home, suddenly find they have access to more meat, more cheese, more cooking oil. More of everything, more often.

Sin taxing soft drinks is smothered in the cradle every time it’s suggested. Watch closely as a long list of industry-sponsored organizations channel consumer anger at any attempts to create disincentives to drinking highly sweetened drinks. Notice also, the outraged housewife loading groceries on the checkout counter is never obese in the anti-tax commercials. Neither are her kids.

In China, 20 million people died from famine from 1959 to 1961. The number of obese Chinese grows 30 to 50 percent every year. Granted, that growth rate is based on a very small base. The vast majority of the country’s people are still what an American would call “thin.” But the lifestyle changes rocking China promise that rate of increase will continue, until the base isn’t so small any more.

Americans are already where the rest of the world is heading. It will be interesting to see if this country can start to solve the problem as the rest of the world realizes a sizable majority has a weight problem. At a time when the U.S. is wrestling with how to cover tens of millions currently uninsured and underinsured, the coming Latino weight boom is a particular challenge. Latinos in the United States face rapidly growing obesity and come from the demographic group with the lowest rates of health insurance.

The growing waistlines, and the growing Latino presence, will offer special challenges to an overburdened health system, as they loom larger in high-cost age cohorts. Today the largest single age group among Latinos is 0-5 years of age. A few decades down the road waits high rates of diabetes, hypertension, and other obesity-related conditions that could drive up the whole nation’s health care bill. Saving a few pounds now will save a lot more dollars later.

In the countries with fast-growing economies in Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe, millions are following Americans into massive waistlines and big threats to national health. One peculiar wrinkle sees food companies providing more and more fattening food, in more places, during more hours of the day, while the governments of these same countries run public service announcements over radio and television urging people to eat less and exercise. The public is in the middle and, for the moment, hearing the food company’s flashy advertising more clearly than it hears the bitter pill of exercise and healthy eating. Look out world –obesity is going to become one of the most frightening health crises of the 21st century.

This entry was cross-posted with Destination Casa Blanca and the Huffington Post.

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