Saying Adiós to Chips and Soda: Hispanics Are Succumbing to Obesity

By Gus West

Washington, DC[CapitalWirePR]– Sugary drinks contribute to health problems, many studies have confirmed.

Are Americans finally slimming down? They just might be — but if you’re Hispanic, there’s little reason to cheer, as obesity remains a stubborn problem in our community. It is a problem exacerbated by the foods we eat and the sodas we drink.

The news last week was that several cities around the country reported that obesity rates among children were declining — albeit slightly — for the first time in some 30 years. But 17% of children (about 12.5 million people) are still obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And more than a third of American adults are obese, with Hispanics trailing only African-Americans in this category.

Indeed, the numbers for Hispanics are troubling. Fully 78% of Mexican-American women are overweight or obese — compared to 60% of non-Hispanic white women.

In general, Hispanic Americans are 1.2 times more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites. And in 2009 to 2010, Mexican American children were nearly twice as likely to be overweight as non-Hispanic white youth.

As Dr. Roberto Madrid of United Healthcare said of a recent report card ofAmerica’s health, “We saw betterment in some measures among the Hispanic community . . . But diabetes and obesity rates take away from those betterments.”

Indeed, more than 10% of Hispanics over the age of 20 have type 2 diabetes. Compared to non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics are 50% more likely to die from the disease. Hispanics also have higher rates of kidney disease, which can be caused by diabetes.

Sugar-sweetened drinks are among the chief culprits forAmerica’s burgeoning obesity epidemic — but that hardly matters when there’s a profit to be made.

PepsiCo recently hired a cultural branding specialist. The Colombian actress Sofia Vergara was featured in Diet Pepsi’s most recent Super Bowl commercial. And the company now sponsors extensive programming on Univision, a top Spanish-language TV station.

Salt is another public health bogeyman — particularly for Hispanics. Excess sodium can lead to such conditions as heart disease, which now afflicts a full third of Mexican-Americans.

But that doesn’t seem to bother snack companies, which are developing new product lines that tap into the dietary predilections of American Hispanics. Ruffles just unveiled potato chips flavored with Tapatio hot sauce. Cheerios now come in a dulce de leche flavor. And Pepsi makes the very popular Manzanita Sol sparkling apple drink.

Salt and sugar work in tandem to exacerbate obesity. According to the journal Pediatrics, the more salt a child consumes, the more sugary beverages he or she drinks. For every gram of salt they ingested, kids drank17 gramsof sugary beverages. Children who drank more than one serving of soda a day were significantly more likely to be obese.

With a few exceptions, companies can make and market whatever products they choose. But public-health officials can fight back.

To start, public schools serving Latinos must do a better job of encouraging regular physical activity. The exercise habits people develop when young tend to last a lifetime. And inactivity is tightly linked with obesity.

Policymakers must also expand access to fresh produce in Hispanic communities. That starts with improving public school food and providing tax incentives for establishing farmers markets.

Finally, soda and fast-food companies must be hemmed in by aggressive zoning laws. McDonald’s, Taco Bell and the like should be prohibited from setting up shop near schools. We restrict adult bookstores in this way, so why junk food that harms kids?

America’s obesity crisis adds $190 billion to the national medical bill and kills some 400,000 people every year. To end this costly suffering, public-health officials must take steps to whittle down our waistlines.

Gus West is Chairman of the Board of The Hispanic Institute.

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