Hispanic obesity won’t stop until this is addressed, say experts

The studies investigating obesity in the United States are almost innumerable, with a focus on certain race/ethnicities more affected than others. Hispanics often top the…

Hispanic obesity is related to food culture, say experts. (Shutterstock)

The studies investigating obesity in the United States are almost innumerable, with a focus on certain race/ethnicities more affected than others. Hispanics often top the list when it comes to obesity, and though there are a number of suspected reasons for this disparity, new research suggests one critical factor may be key to moving forward with this public health issue.

Currently, Hispanics represent almost 17 percent of the population in the United States, and almost one-third of individuals in that demographic are considered obese. The Office of Minority Health indicates Hispanics are 1.2 times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be obese, and because of this increased risk, Hispanics are also at a higher risk for obesity-related diseases such as diabetes.

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While access to healthy foods and affordable options no doubt have an impact as to why Hispanic obesity remains a issue, experts from NYU College of Nursing feel cultural food patterns are just as much–if not more–to blame.

“The review focuses on women in particular, because they are usually the primary caretakers, with responsibility for food-related decisions,” explained researcher Lauren Gerchow, BSN, RN, MSN candidate, in a press release. ““We performed this analysis in the hopes of identifying common food patterns across Latino culture and within Latino subcultures, and to inform future research by determining gaps in the existing literature.”

In a review of 13 previous studies, Gerchow and her team found many of the research projects did not properly address food culture, which was likely a primary reason why the issue has been underrepresented when discussing Hispanic obesity. Some studies did not even attempt to differentiate between Hispanic subgroups, thus eliminating any chance of looking at food options typical among Hispanic of different origin.

“A particularly troubling discrepancy found was that the definition of Latino varied considerably between studies, with four even considering Latinos a single ethnic group with no cultural differentiation for analytical purposes,” noted Gerchow. “We found that these purportedly qualitative studies, of which findings are not supposed to be generalizable, were consistently reporting ways their findings could be generalized across Latino populations.”

Gershow explained that in reality, the immigrant experience pervades every aspect of an immigrant Latina’s life, ultimately influencing the dynamics that become barriers and facilitators to healthy food choices. What’s more, because not all Hispanics come from the same food culture, it is not reasonable for experts to rely on other Hispanics to disseminate information regarding healthy food choices. What may be healthy in one culture may not be the norm in another.

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“Our study identifies some of the unique similarities in Latina behavior patterns among the diverse ethnic group while encouraging future studies to limit overgeneralization in this population and identifying gaps in the literature, which future research can begin to investigate,” Gerchow concluded.

She hopes her research shows nutritional advisers and medical professionals there is a need to recognize the complex influences behind eating behaviors among immigrant Latinas in order to design effective behavior change and goal-setting programs to support healthy lifestyles.