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Obesity and the Hispanic health agenda

The seriousness of the obesity epidemic and its impact on overall Hispanic health cannot be ignored. It is time for direct and timely interventions meant to reduce obesity and as a consequence improve health outcomes in this country for those suffering its impact.
Publicado 2 Jun 2022 – 12:46 PM EDT | Actualizado 3 Jun 2022 – 05:11 PM EDT
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Children exercising in a special gym in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Crédito: Brennan Linsley/AP

As a pediatrician, my foremost concern has been the health and safety of all children. As a Surgeon General, however, I was committed to protect and improve the health of every person in the United States. In the role of 'America’s doctor,' every Surgeon General stands firm in making recommendations to the people of this country based on scientific research data and medical facts.

Our mission is to shape public health by addressing society’s most pressing medical issues like smoking cessation, improving reproductive and maternal health outcomes, supporting persons with disabilities, dealing with health disparities and decreasing overweight and obesity and their complication in our communities. While we’ve made significant progress in some of these areas, obesity still remains an outlier as a public health issue, in need of solutions that we can no longer ignore.

During my tenure as the U.S. Surgeon General part of my focus was also on the Hispanic health agenda. At that time obesity in our community was climbing at an alarming rate, and today the disease’s prevalence continues to worsen. CDC data shows that 44.8% of Hispanics live with obesity. The lack of knowledge in the community together with the incomplete diagnosis of these chronic diseases is and has been negatively impacting Hispanic children, adults, and seniors for generations.

The seriousness of the obesity epidemic and the overall Hispanic health that results from obesity’s comorbid diseases, like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke, cannot be ignored. Nearly 78% of Hispanic women live with overweight or obesity, a large majority that will face some of the dire consequences of living with the disease. It is time for direct and timely interventions meant to reduce obesity and as a consequence improve health outcomes in this country for those suffering its impact.

Hispanic youth, as well, suffer from obesity with the second highest rate reported among all races and ethnicities. About 2 in 7 Hispanic boys (28.1%) and nearly 1 in 4 Hispanic girls (23.0%) have obesity. We must elevate the standards of nutrition in our schools and re-implement the daily physical activity that children need to burn calories. The effects of obesity must be controlled early. It's harder to reverse the detrimental effects of obesity, if it’s not addressed as early as possible otherwise, young people who struggle with obesity today will become adults with poor health outcomes tomorrow.

For the adult population to prevent obesity, it is imperative that we make available the healthiest food choices not only for ourselves but for our children as well. We must also promote and provide activities in our daily lives that allow for movement and exercise. Lifestyle interventions can be impactful on weight management, and reduction. Research has made it clear that sustained metabolic control is crucial in managing obesity.

Many families need more information, that includes additional support through consultation with an obesity trained physician who can prescribe FDA-approved anti-obesity medications. Similarly, our older adults whose metabolism slows with age are also vulnerable to obesity. They are not exempted. They manifest an increase of type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and strokes, and the occurrence of some types of cancer. Declines in their mental status and wellbeing, has also been reported, all are factors that lead to potentially increased healthcare costs.

It’s extremely important that Medicare and private insurers take every step to ensure the full coverage continuum of care regarding obesity, with the aim of reducing the burden of comorbidities across the aging population.

Minorities today are known to be around 39%, and they will make up more than half of the population of the United States by 2050. Yet, in many of our communities, the cases of poverty, lack of education, stifled economic opportunity, gaps in access to health insurance and quality healthcare are barriers to better health conducive to a more prosperous and fulfilled life. The higher prevalence of chronic diseases, like obesity, among racial and ethnic minorities requires immediate attention for the provision of better care prevention and early treatment.

So, what do we do to improve health in our communities? To begin, we must increase our POLITICAL CLOUT! We must create cohesive approaches to attract and obtain affordable housing, food, and increased economic opportunities. Policy makers must finally remove outdated rules and regulations that have allowed social determinants of health to go unchecked and inequitable healthcare delivery to persist. Public and private insurance providers must allow for the provision of access to every option available that covers obesity care. In the long run, investments in obesity prevention and treatment now will pay dividends in the reduction of comorbid disease burden in the future.

I believe that in spite of the alarming numbers in obesity, there is hope for changing the course of the epidemic in the U.S.. For that, we must address and finally confront the root causes of obesity. By working together and utilizing all the current scientific data and up to date available treatments, we can alleviate obesity’s heavy toll on our community. As the emerging majority, people of color must do everything in our power to improve health outcomes for future generations. We can no longer make compromises on our quest for a healthier America. The time is now. We have waited enough!