Adopting America's Bad Habits

Eudom Ixthayul shows his students that even broomsticks can help them exercise. He teaches at La Clinica del Pueblo in Columbia Heights.
Eudom Ixthayul shows his students that even broomsticks can help them exercise. He teaches at La Clinica del Pueblo in Columbia Heights. (Photos By Dominic Bracco Ii -- The Washington Post)
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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Armed with an array of plastic eggs, grapes, broccoli and a nasty looking cross-section of an artery clogged with cholesterol, Carlos Garcia was demonstrating the hidden dangers of American cooking and eating for a group of young Hispanic mothers in Silver Spring.

"If you buy juice for your baby, check how much sugar it has in it," Garcia explained in Spanish. "If you cook eggs, use the white and throw away the yolk. And if you can't get to a gym, walk for half an hour each day."

Nancy Hernandez, 23, listened closely. The school gym, commandeered for a health fair one recent weekend, was crowded with Latino families getting blood-pressure checks and listening to informative chats about breast cancer.

"I am really trying hard. I bake chicken instead of frying it now," said Hernandez, a Salvadoran American mother of three. "I want to lose weight, and I want my kids to be healthy. We used to go to McDonald's a lot, but now when they ask to go, I tell them 'Mommy is cooking at home tonight.' "

One of the ironies of emigrating from poor rural life in Central America to poor urban and suburban life in an area such as Washington is that it doesn't necessarily make you any healthier -- it just changes the ways in which you are unhealthy, according to health-care providers and immigrant families here.

Instead of weeding fields and walking long distances, which make you burn too many calories, you vacuum floors and take buses, which make you tired and lazy. Instead of cooking rice and beans, which lack many vitamins, you stop off for pizza and fries, which have too much fat. Instead of catching tropical infections, you are at greater risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.

You have acquired the habits of the promised land, and they are slowly killing you.

Nationwide, the rates of obesity and diabetes among Latinos are soaring to record levels, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups. Latinos in the United States live longer than non-Hispanic whites but have higher disease rates. They are almost twice as likely to die from diabetes and have much higher rates of obesity and high blood pressure.

In the Washington region, which is home to more than half a million Hispanics, including immigrants and their native-born children, health agencies are seeing daily evidence of these problems.

"There are so many factors, and some of them are hard to change," said Maria S. Gomez, director of Mary's Center for Maternal and Child Care in the District. "Our families have a lot of stress. They live in dangerous neighborhoods with no place to walk. Their kids get no exercise in school. They come here thinking everything in America must be good for them, whether it is fast food or infant formula. They don't realize the damage all this is doing."

Today, several local agencies such as Mary's Center are reaching out to Latino immigrants with health fairs, free tests for diabetes and high blood pressure, prenatal and infant checkups, videotapes on healthy cooking and after-work exercise classes.

As a result, agency officials said, more working adults are losing weight, more babies are being breast-fed, and more mothers are learning how to navigate the minefield of American convenience food and fend off the blandishments of children's TV-show advertising.


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