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A Heavy Problem

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Welcome to the inaugural blog post from Destination Casa Blanca, the Latino Voice in Politics, carried since 2008 on Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, HITN. Each week I'll post some thoughts from the latest show, and of course we want you to talk back to your television set, answering with reactions and conclusions of your own.

This week's edition of the program dealt with juvenile obesity, its causes, and solutions. The terrific panel came from a variety of disciplines; epidemiology, social work, dentistry, and health disparities. The panelists were great at diagnoses, but the suggestions about what to do next were less than satisfying. It wasn't their fault: Americans of all ethnic groups have been pretty resistance to the long-understood public health messages concerning nutrition.

Americans are fat. Latinos in America are fatter still, with almost one out of five Latino kids overweight, and some one out of six obese. There is some genetic predisposition to put on weight, that is, a physical tendency to get fatter than other people eating the same food. But the real problem, said our panelists, was not genetic but caloric. We eat too much food, too much of the wrong foods, and exercise too little. Aggravating factors for these food basics include schools serving fattening lunches, selling sugary drinks, and providing too few opportunities to exercise.

So what's a country already dealing with the wrestling the world's highest health care bills supposed to do? Any attempt to tax junk food and sweet drinks brings out the heavy artillery from the powerful and well-funded snack foods and beverage industries. The struggle to keep us from digging our collective graves with a knife and fork and a straw is instead portrayed as Big-Brother style interference in personal liberty and another trespass from the creeping nanny state.

At the same time juvenile onset of adult diabetes is increasing, with the havoc it plays on bodies over time. Latinos, already overrepresented among the uninsured, suffer amputations and lost eyesight from untreated and under-treated diabetes at higher rates than other Americans. Obesity is robbing kids and adults of years of life, and countless happy and healthy years of work and leisure.

As I noted in the show, there's really no controversy here. There is no one who is "pro-obesity." There is no "other side" to bring on to argue the upside of excessive eating, too little exercise, and a lifetime of higher health costs and lost work.

But you can ask anyone who has ever tried to lose 10 or 20 pounds and keep them off how hard changing lifestyle and habits can be. Children are in an even tougher spot: They don't control what food schools serve in lunchrooms, what parents serve at home, or what small grocers carry for sale in their neighborhood markets. Habits of eating, exercise, and body care are often set in childhood. We owe these kids more than we're giving them.

The challenges are so many. A lot of our kids live in neighborhoods where little in the way of fresh and healthy foods are easily available. Take a look at the produce section in a bodega or convenience store: the fruits and vegetables are terrible and overpriced.

However, big supermarket chains are reluctant to move into low-income neighborhoods because they can't turn the profit-per-square foot required by corporate management. Many older center city neighborhoods don't have the kind of structures where a big food retailer can locate, and the chains are reluctant to pay for construction.

There are interlocking and complex patterns of low income, food access, and lifestyle that lead to the kids you see walking the streets of the country's barrios. Many are enormous. Brenda Vernon-Shepherd, the social worker on the panel, noted that lifestyle change should be incremental, gradual, to work over the long haul. No one can lose 40 pounds immediately. But incremental change requires sticking to new ways of life and making them permanent.

Waiting for the federal government to come riding to the rescue of the Latino community's health is probably a bad idea. There's so much we can do for ourselves. Changes that can save thousands of years of healthy life and billions of dollars of health care costs can start right around the dinner table. The panel had one suggestion you can start with immediately: put down that soda!

To view the panel discussion on Destination Casablanca, please visit http://www.hitn.tv/dcb

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