LONG BEACH &mdsh; For Maria Garcia, a 44-year-old mother of three in Central Long Beach, making the switch to a healthy lifestyle wasn’t easy at first.
Slowly, she started adding fruits and vegetables to regular meals and began taking 30-minute walks through the neighborhood with her children. She cut out soda pop and scoured the newspapers for deals on fresh produce.
Within six months, she had lost 40 pounds. Her 12-year-old daughter lost 30 pounds, and her two sons, ages 13 and 10, are maintaining healthy weights.
“I want my children to be healthy,” Garcia said in Spanish. “I want my family to have a healthy future that’s free from disease.”
The Garcias are like millions of families across the country struggling with obesity. The rate of childhood obesity has tripled in America over the past three decades, and today, nearly 1 in 3 children is overweight or obese, according to national statistics.
The numbers are higher in African-American and Latino communities, where nearly 40 percent of the children are overweight or obese.
The epidemic has prompted President Barack Obama to officially declare September as “National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month.”
In Long Beach, nearly half of all fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders are considered overweight or obese by federal standards, according to a study released last month from an organization
called ReThinking Greater Long Beach. The nonprofit group is a trio of semi-retired professors — William Crampon, John Humphrey and Alex Norman — who work to provide the community with in-depth research about the city’s population.
Using data collected from the Long Beach Unified School District, the study analyzed the Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 5,000 children in grades five, seven and nine from 2003 to 2010. The school district each year measures the BMI of students
in the three grades as part of a state physical fitness program.
In addition to the numbers of normal, overweight and obese students, the study analyzed BMI in relation to factors including ethnicity, neighborhood, socioeconomic status and proximity to food retailers.
Among the key findings:
An estimated 31 percent of fifth-graders, 25 percent of seventh-graders and 21 percent of ninth-graders are obese.
Obesity rates were significantly higher in low-income areas, but the number of overweight children was roughly the same across neighborhoods, grades and demographics.
Neighborhoods with a high concentration of mini markets had higher rates of obesity.
Northwest Long Beach had the highest rate of obesity at 36 percent. Park Estates near Cal State Long Beach had the lowest at 8 percent.
Latino students had the highest rate of obesity, followed by African-Americans, Asians and whites.
Crampon, a former professor of management and policy studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a Lakewood resident, said some of the results were surprising.
“It was interesting to see that the number of students who areclassified as overweight was the same across all demographics, grades and socioeconomic groups,” he said.
However, Crampon urged caution in using BMI as a tool to determine obesity rates. BMI is calculated using a height-to-weight ratio, but the measurement is flawed because it doesn’t account for body shapes and muscle mass, he said.
The study is meant to provide a snapshot of areas with high health risks, he explained.
“The purpose of this study and the whole purpose of ReThinking Greater Long Beach is to increase public awareness,” Crampon said.
Health experts say childhood obesity is caused by a combination of factors — massive portion sizes, easy access to fast foods, increased consumption of sugary drinks and a sedentary lifestyle.
“The enhanced marketing of cheap, fast, calorically dense food loaded with fat and carbohydrates is really the leading cause of childhood obesity,” said Dr. Peter Vash, executive medical director of the Southern California-based Lindora weight loss program. “And it’s not just in the United States., We’re seeing it around the world.”
Vash said even small changes, such as reducing portion size and cutting out soda, can make a big difference.
Ron Arias, director of the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services, said the city has a number of programs that promote healthy lifestyles.
One program, called the Long Beach Neighborhood Store Partnership, works with mini-marts to promote sales of fresh produce in dense neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce. Long Beach is also in the process of adding healthful healthysnack choices to vending machines on city property, he said.
Garcia, the mother of three, found help through the Healthy Lifestyles program at The Children’s Clinic, a Long Beach-based nonprofit dedicated to providing health care to underserved families.
Neighborhoods a factor
The Children’s Clinic CEO, Dr. Elisa Nicholas, said the obesity rates in her patients coincide with the ReThinking Greater Long Beach study. Problems such as a lack of park space, few supermarkets and unsafe neighborhoods all contribute to higher obesity rates in low-income areas, she said.
Through the Healthy Lifestyles program, families get comprehensive information on ways to eat right and exercise. Children are asked to sign a “Nutrition and Exercise Goal Contract” and pick from a list of goals, including — eat less fast food, drink water instead of soda and juice, eat smaller portions and exercise regularly.
Nicholas said community outreach is key to making a positive change.
“It’s not all about education,” she said. “We want to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”
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