Are Latinos doomed to be diabetic? As quickly as the U.S. Census numbers for the Hispanic population rise, so do the percentages of Latinos being diagnosed with diabetes. The National Diabetes Education Program reports that 10.4 percent of Latinos age 20 and over have this debilitating, life-threatening disease. We’re not alone; diabetes runs across cultural borders in America. So what’s the culprit we all have in common? One answer came last week.
Comfort food queen Paula Deen announced that she has developed Type 2 diabetes. Considering the high-fat, low-nutrition cuisine for which she’s become famous, such as bacon-wrapped, deep-fried macaroni and cheese, and burgers made with donuts, her disclosure wasn’t a surprise. Nor was her solution: to control the diabetes with drugs (for which she has become a paid spokesperson, but that’s another story).
While diabetes can be inherited or caused by disorders of the endocrine system, a major cause of Type 2 diabetes is a high-fat diet. You can’t get much higher in fat than donut burgers and deep-fried, bacon-wrapped mac n’ cheese, but Paula Deen hardly corners the market on unhealthy food. In fact, that’s what American cuisine is all about.
We glamorize indulgent food, and lots of it. Shows such as Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and Man Vs. Food illustrate our love of big, fat, deep-fried, cheese-laden, meat-filled cuisine. The truth is we eat very large amounts of food made of very bad things: processed carbohydrates, sugar or chemical sweeteners, and harmful fats. And then we wrap it in bacon and deep-fry it.
Because of eating this big, very unhealthy food, we are a nation of big people, with bigger numbers of us suffering from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Meanwhile, big pharmaceutical companies make big money selling us pills and treatments.
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OVER-WORKED AND OVER-PROCESSED
There are many reasons we eat this way. We’re in an economic crisis. We’re incredibly busy with work and family. Packaged, over-processed, and fast food seems like a quick, inexpensive solution. This is true for Viviana, a 40 year-old mother of three in San Marcos, Texas. “Like many people, we have a car payment, a mortgage, the kids’ clothing, medical bills . . . Our diet consists of Top Ramen, mac n’ cheese, and some meat, as well as beans, rice, and tortillas. Most of the sopas we have—fideo, conchitas—are all starch. Starchy food is cheap and readily available, so it is a major food group in our diets, but that leads to elevated blood sugar levels.”
Diabetes can be hereditary; it runs in Viviana’s family, and it’s a potential legacy she hopes she doesn’t pass on. “I’ve made my children aware of how I could end up: dialysis, amputations, death. It’s sad to have to tell them this, but I want them to know what diabetes does. If someone had told me, I would have tried to change my diet and exercise habits much sooner.”
Unfortunately, we can’t count on our doctors or the government to step in on our behalf. Most medical students receive less than 20 hours of nutritional study as part of their courses—that’s less than a day over six years of study. And our government is too financially bound to food and pharmaceutical conglomerates to help us. As Bill Maher pointed out, “There’s no money in healthy people.”
THE POWER TO CHOOSE
The good news? We hold the power.
The power is in choice—choosing to cook over buying fast food, choosing real food over processed, packaged food. (If you’re not sure what that is, use the simple guideline developed by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: If it has more than five ingredients and your first-grader can’t pronounce them, it’s probably not food.)
Just as the Hispanic population isn’t inherently pre-disposed to poor health, so our traditional cuisines weren’t originally designed to kill us. Otherwise, we never would’ve made it to the Census numbers we’re showing. While Latin food isn’t exactly low-fat, neither is French food, and French women only started getting fat when they began eating like American women. Our food was also heavier on vegetables and raw grains than meat—more carne than chili was an American adaptation.
The Census shows the power of our increasing numbers; politicians court the power of our vote, and corporations want the power of our dollars. The power to improve our health statistics is in our hands. Let’s stage a national food fight! Ignore the commercials that entice you to buy crap that’s bad for you and your family. Let’s use the good example of our mothers and abuelas by finding their recipes, being smart supermarket shoppers buying real food, and cooking healthy meals with the most important ingredient in Latin and any cuisine: love. By reclaiming our food, we reclaim our power, our health, and the health of our children.