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Bloomberg Could Truly Help Cut the Fat

Howard Jordan
Howard Jordan is a political columnist for Hoy, New York City's Spanish daily newspaper. 

January 25, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newsday, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

I CAN STILL remember the shame on my face when a relative who'd recently arrived from Puerto Rico looked at me and bluntly remarked, "Howard, oye gordiflon (hey, fatso), stop being lazy and stuffing your face and go on a diet." Tears welled in my eyes. Thirty years later, I think about that in the Big Gym on 181st Street off Broadway as I wage the struggle of my life - the fight against fat.

Having gone from 5-foot-6, weighing 320 pounds to 185, I am a foot soldier in the growing American war against obesity and I hope to recruit a new general to the cause, namely, Mayor Mike Bloomberg. It's well known that public health is one of his major concerns - the school of public health at his alma mater, John Hopkins, is named after him - and he recently appointed Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, a medical officer for the World Health Organization, as his next health commissioner. We need Bloomberg's leadership to combat obesity, which, according to the surgeon general, Dr. David Satcher, has reached epidemic proportions in the United States.

Obesity is the medical term for being fat. Men with more than 25 percent body fat and women with more than 30 percent body fat are considered obese. About 26 percent of adults are obese, as are nearly 13 percent of children. Each year in the United States 300,000 adult deaths are related to obesity. Obese adults suffer increased health risks from chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and some forms of cancer. These medical problems are particularly acute for Latinos and African Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 percent of African Americans and about 21 percent of Latinos are considered obese, compared with just 17 percent for whites.

Why are people fat? There are many causes of obesity, such as genes, lifestyle and psychological needs. Being fat can run in the family. My family was what we Latinos call comelones (heavy eaters). Latinos, like most Americans, eat high-starch foods. A lifestyle of fatty foods and no exercise contributes to the epidemic. Some people eat as a form of emotional medication in response to negative feelings, boredom, sadness or anger. Many obese people suffer from depression and low self-esteem.

Being fat shouldn't hurt but it does. Prejudice and intolerance of los gordos (the fat ones) has led to the coining of the term "fat hatred." According to a recent survey by the National Association on Obesity, 16 percent of the adults said they would abort their child if they knew it would be untreatably obese. By comparison, 17 percent reportedly would abort if the child were mildly retarded.

It was only after I lost 140 pounds and was treated differently by both friends and relatives that I realized how emotionally scarred I was by this prejudice. People will hate you only because of your weight. From Howard Stern to Al Bundy, people feel free to attack anybody who is obese. My experiences of being overweight son de puro dolor (are of pure pain).

I recommend that our honorable alcalde (our mayor) launch an education campaign in communities of color geared toward increasing public understanding, especially among young people, of the causes and health hazards of obesity. He should advocate increasing the proportion of obese patients who have coverage for clinical preventive services and treatment as part of their health insurance. He should push for the vigorous prosecution of deceptive advertisers who take unfair advantage of obesity victims with false claims of products that "increase metabolism" or are "fat burners." Just this week, L.A. Weight Loss Centers agreed to pay New York State $110,000 to settle false advertising charges filed by the state attorney general.

My suggestions are nada nuevo (nothing new). I have not, a la Christopher Columbus, discovered America. But change requires focus and the city Department of Health's programs to treat obesity in communities of color are at best inadequate or at worst nonexistent. Moreover, major anti-obesity groups such as the American Obesity Association have no agenda for Latino communities.

Being fat is a health problem, not a character flaw. Like many Latinos and Americans of every stripe, I have joined the war against obesity. I am still 30 pounds overweight and every day is a struggle against the "yo-yo effect" of losing and regaining the unwanted pounds. But with a renewed effort toward combating la gordura (fat) in our barrios, maybe someday a portly Latino kid growing up like me won't have to cry in his room because some insensitive relative called him a gordiflon.

Generalisimo Bloomberg, the crusade against obesity awaits you.

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