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Fitting Into Genes

By Liz Doup

March 28, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Sun-Sentinel Co. All rights reserved.

Elizabeth Jewett, in her 20s, wouldn't think of giving it up. Neither would Monica Cabrera, in her 30s. Or Maritza Cholakis, in her 40s. Or Bertha Kutcher, in her 50s. Most days, they're walking, biking or dancing their way to better health. And as Hispanic women or women of Hispanic descent, that's a smart thing to do.

Though it's too simplistic to put all Hispanic women under one big umbrella -- they represent dozens of countries and attitudes differ among generations and social groups -- some similarities can't be avoided.

Numerous medical studies show that Hispanic women are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes and heart disease than white, non-Hispanic women. On average, they're also shorter and heavier than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.

Just recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that said obesity could overtake smoking next year as the leading cause of preventable disease. The same week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to ban obesity-related lawsuits against the fast-food industry.

In South Florida, where nearly a fifth of the population is Hispanic female, this news should strike a nerve. Especially since a healthy diet and 30 minutes of daily exercise can go a long way in reducing both obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.

But exercise, as we think of it today, isn't necessarily integrated into the traditional Hispanic community.

"Women think others in the Latina community will look down on them if they take time for themselves," says Amy Eyler, who authored a book exploring influences on women and exercise. "The husband, children and household obligations come first."

Indeed, big, extended families can mean more work, less time, for women. Economics also plays a part; gyms cost money. And language barriers can make women feel out of place. Finally, the type of exercise makes a difference.

"One of the things women wanted to do was dance," says Eyler, an assistant professor at Saint Louis University in St. Louis. "They wanted something appropriate for them. Not riding a stationary bike and going nowhere."

In fact, many South Florida fitness centers now offer Latin dance-inspired classes. Dubbed everything from Loco-Motion to Zumba and salsa aerobics, they combine Latin dance moves such as the cumbia, meringue and salsa with heart-thumping Latin music and a tempo so fast it's a cardio workout. They're wildly popular and not just among Hispanic women.

"There's a lot of shaking, sweating and laughing going on," says Puerto Rican-born Lucy Silva, who teaches classes at Memorial Hospital West in Pembroke Pines. "A lot of people come because they don't feel like they're exercising. Dancing is good for your soul."

Ali Pellito, whose family background is also Puerto Rican, started teaching one Zumba class weekly in west Broward last fall. She now teaches 13 a week. "They feel like they're coming to a party."

Cultural differences

As a personal trainer at Sports Club/LA Miami, Sandra Sanchez, whose family roots are in Mexico and Spain, sees cultural differences in her clients. White, non-Hispanic women want to be firm, thinner, flatter. No so some Hispanic women, who echo the message of the 2002 movie, Real Women Have Curves, a celebration of full-figured Hispanic women wrapped around a mother-daughter generational clash.

"They want curves," Sanchez says. "They want firm, but larger, butts because that adds more curvature to your body. Everybody wants to look like J.Lo."

Generally speaking, Hispanic women are larger than white, non-Hispanic women, according to SizeUSA, a new national survey on the American body that measured more than 10,000 people in 13 cities nationwide using a light-pulsing 3-D scanner.

Depending on age, Hispanic women measured an inch or two larger in the bust, waist and hips.

But when confronted with the American ideal of ultra-thin bodies, cultures collide. Norma Gonzalez, a dietitian at Weston's Cleveland Clinic, works with overweight girls, about 75 percent of whom are Hispanic, to help them slim down to a healthy weight.

"They want to look very, very thin," she says. "They want to be like their friends in their school, but I tell them, our bodies are different."

As Hispanic women assimilate, some fall into the same extreme eating patterns as their American counterparts. Typically, eating disorders aren't a big problem in countries where food isn't abundant.

Onelia Lage, a pediatrician and adolescent-medicine specialist at the University of Miami School of Medicine, recently treated two teenage girls originally from Venezuela and Colombia for bulimia, an eating disorder that involves purging food to keep thin. And she expects to see more Hispanic patients in the future.

"Pop culture and popular media have an affect on young people," she says. "Definitely, it affects our girls."

American abundance

Though many Hispanics come to the United States for all it offers, American abundance can be too much of a good thing. Typically, immigrant groups, Hispanic women included, develop diabetes at a higher rate here than in their homeland, says Camilo Leslie, an endocrinologist at Weston's Cleveland Clinic.

"Too much fast food," says Leslie, who's from the Dominican Republic. "Ask any immigrant and you'll hear talk about huge portions. And here they drive instead of walk."

Weight gain and obesity dramatically increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, which, if untreated, can lead to kidney problems, blindness, amputations, even death. Diabetics are more likely to develop heart disease and more likely to die from it, compared to those who aren't.

The traditional Latin American diet of rice, beans and bread contributes to the problem.

"It's all carbs," says Gonzalez, the dietician. "You combine that diet with the American diet, high in carbs and fast foods, and you increase their risk.

In addition, Hispanic women are more prone to carry weight in the stomach and hips. Extra pounds there increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease, among other medical problems.

Gonzalez, who moved to the states three years ago from Puerto Rico, emphasizes that people can keep their heritage and their health, too.

"You can still enjoy what your culture offers, just enjoy the food in moderation," she says. "Maybe have it once a week."

As for exercise: Gyms and organized exercise classes are an option but not a requirement for keeping fit.

"You can increase your activity level by parking farther away, using the stairs or walking the dog," she says. "If you like to dance, put music on at home and dance. Just increase your activity. Make it a part of your life and your culture."

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