Thursday, January 04, 2007

Land of Opportunity, Yes, and of Obesity

Susana Sierra was a healthy child.

Her muscles ached from picking tomatoes. Mom cooked Mexican dishes of rice, beans and chicken from scratch. Dad came home with bags of fresh fruit. She chased friends through yards, running as fast as she could.

Today, Sierra works in an office. Her children watch TV after school, finish homework and eat snacks. Sierra cooks, but often fast food and pizza make do.

Seem like a typical American family?

They are in at least one way: They're gaining weight.

Hispanic immigrants and their children are adopting America's unhealthy lifestyle at alarming rates, experts say.

Studies have long shown that Hispanic immigrants arrive in this country in better health than the U.S. population, even when leaving behind Third World conditions.
--from "Hispanic waistlines growing in land of plenty"

Whoa, I'm having family-related flashbacks.

See, I'm Hispanic. Of my siblings, I'm the only one who grew up (ie formative years) in the US. And I'm the only one who's a tub o' lard among my siblings. My parents grew to old age without cardiac problems, hypertension, diabetes type II, or osteoporosis. We, their descendants, are battling hyperlipidemia to hypertension to insulin resistance. One of my nephews had a heart attack at age 39.

I'm closer in age to my nieces and nephews than to my siblings. And we, who grew up here, share the fat profile. I have two nieces and two nephews. All are obese.

Our profile is the profile in that article. When I hear my siblings talk about growing up in the mountainous region of Eastern Cuba (the old province of Oriente, before Castro got his grimy hands on the map), I can tick off the healthy aspects: lots of playing in fresh air, climbing trees, running up and down hills and climbing mountainous areas where relatives lived in "La Siberia" (the high, lushly vegetated areas that used to be without plumbing or electricity). Swimming. Eating fresh fruit off the trees. Eating chickens killed fresh that day before heading to the pot for soup or stew or frying. Lots of fiber (starchy veggies and fruit and beans). Salads got olive oil and vinegar (creamy dressings were unheard of).

I still remember my pop making me bread with olive oil as a kid. He preferred it to butter.

Yes, the diet wasn't perfect. Rice was white, as was bread and the sugar for the traditional daily doses of coffee. And lard was often used for fying. But the fresh produce, legumes and exercise in the open air burned off excess calories.

My dad, like Sierra's, used to take me to the fresh market and let me pick fruits of my choice. My parents would sit me down, semi-clothed, on newspaper laid out on the floor to protect from stains, and let me munch away on pomegranates, mangoes, kenepas, pineapples, cherries, watermelon, fresh oranges, etc. Dad would make fruit smoothies and fresh juices decades before they were popular. (I still find the taste of store-bought juices weird.) Mom would keep the rinds of grapefruit and oranges and make home-made marmalade. Nuts, especially walnuts, were a treat. Every day, almost, some kind of big pot of legumes was cooking--black beans, red beans, white beans, lentils, chick peas.

I grew up with canned soup and deli meat on white bread at lunch in my elementary school. Even fattier fare in junior and senior high school (beef pizza, buttered grilled cheese sandwhiches on white bread, macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, pasta with meat sauce, sausage and egg breakfasts). Olive oil and vinegar got replaced by thousand island or blue cheese or creamy italian or sugary French dressing. Trans fats in packaged foods. Margarines replacing butter. High fructose corn syrup in just about anything processed for kids--like the super sugary cereals I came to prefer to mother's corn meal mush and oatmeal, both doused or boiled with milk. (I went back in my thirties to making my own meal mush and oatmeal.)

And worse: entertainment technology. Instead of wanting to be out swimming and running and biking and horse-back riding and climbing trees and mixing slop for pigs (which my siblings say was a "treat" for the kids to all do), we sit and watch tv or surf the net or play video games or, hey, write blogs. We drive everywhere. Man, I remember my 70 year old dad walking 8 blocks there and 8 blocks back to buy one loaf of fresh Cuban bread from a local bakery. He had a car, but he walked.

I wasn't fat when I had to walk a half mile a day to get to school and a half mile to come home. I wasn't skinny, mind you--I'm just not fated for that--but I wasn't overweight.

Today, we drive far shorter distances for errands or work or school.

And so...we get fatter and fatter as a nation cause food is plentiful and constantly tempting (and easily obtained and "convenient" to prepare) and because we just sit and sit and sit.

Calories in, too many. Calories out, not nearly enough.

So, yeah. I know the immigrant story. I'm both a beneficiary in many, many ways, and a casualty in this one: My fat behind is quite eloquent. I've become one of the affluent fatties of the wonderful, free, high-tech, food-filled first world.

(Hey, if you live in the US, you're rich compared to most of the rest of the world, so, yeah, YOU, if you have a computer and the electricity to run it and pay for an ISP and have a house with a/c and a fridge with food, then you're affluent. You're, relatively speaking, RICH. Deal with it.)


Camy Tang said...

Wow, now that's eye opening. I've been trying to move back to a healthier Asian diet, too--fish, rice instead of bread, more vegetables, less pork and beef, less fried foods, less dairy, more soy.

It's hard when surrounded by the cheaper alternatives in the grocery store, though. I have to balance the checkbook versus the waistline.

Mirtika said...

I go with the best intentions, and buy tons of produce, organic, low-fat, lean..and then so much goes to waste cause I don't cook/chop/wash/etc use it.

Now, I'm starting to buy pre-cut, pre-chopped, pre-washed and I'm so much mroe likely to use it. Expensive, though.


Spider63 said...

Obese Children are becoming an epidemic in America!

Mirtika said...

Thank you for the link, Spider. I'll post on your "Obese Children" post for my readers.