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Surgeon General Urges Diet Changes

In a visit to a Pacoima middle school, he stresses educating parents

By Hector Becerra, Times Staff Writer

January 29, 2004
Copyright ©2004 LOS ANGELES TIMES. All rights reserved.

Cultural traditions have to change before children begin to eat more healthfully and exercise more, U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona told an audience at a Pacoima school Tuesday, in the wake of reports on the prevalence of childhood obesity and adult diabetes in the Latino community.

The former Green Beret, Vietnam War medic and trauma surgeon culled memories from his childhood in New York's Spanish Harlem to deliver his message to students and others gathered at Charles Maclay Middle School.

"How we purchase our foods, how we cook our foods — it's a culture thing. It's handed down from your great-grandmother to your grandmother to your mom," Carmona said. "They weren't thinking about nutritional value. They were thinking about preparing something that you like and that fills you, that would be cooked with lard, with grease, fried. It tasted good, but it contributed to gaining weight."

The Pacoima school was the 12th visited by Carmona, who aims to deliver his message of physical fitness to schools in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, where his parents emigrated from.

Childhood obesity is considered a nationwide problem, but rates in California top the national average, with about 26% of youths considered overweight or obese.

An increase in obesity has probably led to a rise in disabilities such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke, according to a recent study by the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp.

Battling obesity is the goal of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, which urges Americans to get into shape by becoming physically active.

The percentage of overweight children is much higher among Latinos and African Americans, compared with whites and Asian Americans, because of genetic, economic and cultural forces, experts said.

"Economics really is a big problem," Carmona said, "especially in Latino communities where people have less income and have less discretion to buy certain foods. Now, just because you're poor doesn't mean you can't buy healthy foods. But you have to learn about that."

The Pacoima school serves a mostly working-class community that includes children from three public housing developments. The surgeon general said parents need to be taught to be more involved in encouraging their children to exercise and eat better. But he said there are many cultural traditions that must be overcome.

In the past, when parents or grandparents sent children out to play, "they weren't responsible for your activities," Carmona said. "They just said, 'Ve pa' fuera' — go out and play outside. The culture needs to change."

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