Obesity rates continue to rise in the United States across all demographics, but African-Americans and Hispanics are most affected, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Obesity is commonly associated with increased health risks, reduced quality of life and rising health care costs. Diseases in connection with weight problems include diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and some forms of cancer.
African-Americans and Hispanics
Have the Highest Rates of Weight Problems
The current obesity rate of Mexican-American adults is about 41 percent, significantly higher than the overall national average of about 36 percent of Americans who are obese, which is considred as roughly 30 or more pounds over a healthy weight range, according to the NCHS special report on nutrition and chronic health conditions of Hispanics living in the U.S. (3/28/2012).
African-Americans have the highest obesity rates at almost 50 percent. Among African-American women, the numbers are especially dramatic. Four out of five are overweight or obese, according to the Office of Minority Health (OMH), a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
In response to these alarming statistics, the U.S. government set as a specific goal the elimination of health disparities among racial and ethnic populations. “Given the overall high prevalence of obesity and the significant differences among non-Hispanic blacks, non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics, effective policies and environmental strategies that promote healthy eating and physical activity are needed for all populations and geographic areas, but particularly for those populations and areas disproportionally affected by obesity,” states a CDC report in 2008, titled “Differences in Prevalence of Obesity.”
Health problems affecting minorities are a grave concern for the country as a whole. The Hispanic population is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S., and Hispanics of Mexican origin account for the largest portion. It is estimated that by 2050 over 130 million Hispanics will be living here.
Already over 20 percent of Mexican-Americans suffer from high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels caused by weight problems, and by all indications these numbers will keep rising. In terms of future health care costs, the prospects are dismal as well. Only about half of the Mexican American population has health insurance, according to the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). For many, emergency care will be their only option for treatment.
First generation immigrants seem to be less prone to develop weight problems due to changing environments and lifestyles than their descendents. Second and third-generation Mexican-Americans are more than twice as likely to become obese, according to a study conducted by the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina and published in the Journal of Nutrition. One reason may be changing preferences from a traditional Mexican diet, dominated by fresh foods like corn, beans and vegetables, to an American-style diet based on meat products and processed foods.
Socio-economic circumstances and lack of nutritional education may also play a role. Healthier food items like fresh produce are often too expensive for low-income immigrant families. Many minority women are completely unfamiliar with concepts like counting calories, balancing food groups and adopting leaner cooking techniques. “The typical Mexican recipe calls for ‘enough’ or ‘not too much’ of an ingredient, rather than specific measurements, said Dr. Nangel Lindberg, a researcher at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon, and lead author of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which was published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.
In connection with the study, a “culturally tailored weight management program” was established to help participating Hispanic women better understand how portion sizes and calorie intake can be controlled and educate them about healthier cooking styles. The one-year program, named “De Por Vida” (For Life), by itself was a success as it helped most participants to lose on average over 15 pounds.