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June 1, 2005
On a recent hazy Saturday afternoon in Mexico City, the pungent scent of ripe mango hung thick in the city's Polanco neighborhood.
Sellers had just sliced their fruit open - orange flesh still dripping with juice and humidity - to lure customers to their stalls. And the customers, typically family members walking hand in hand, haggled and ate. They inspected mounds of papayas, pineapples, guanabana, watermelon, pomegranate and plums at the surrounding tables. Their children chewed peeled oranges on a stick and ran around the tables of red, ripe tomatoes piled on bunches of draped cilantro, huge red beets, an almost infinite variety of peppers, prickly pear pads, avocados and tomatillos.
Not your typical American produce section.
When Mexicans leave their rural homes and move to the cities of the United States, they often leave foods like these behind. They begin eating the American way: a smaller variety of foods; less fresh fruit, rice, and beans; more calories, refined grains, saturated fats, and sugar. Foods they used to eat fresh, they now eat highly processed.
This Americanized diet affects Mexicans the same way it has been affecting the rest of the United States - only worse. According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost three out of four adult Mexican-Americans are overweight. The center also reports that one in four Mexican-Americans over the age of 45 has Type 2 diabetes.
In Mexico City at the end of April, a world-renowned group of scientists, nutritionists and chefs from the United States, Mexico and other Latin American countries came together to figure out how to fix this health crisis.
The issue is a big one in the States. According to the most recent census in 2000, Hispanics now make up 13 percent of the U.S. population.
"The 21st Latin American country is the United States," said chef and culinary historian Maricel Presilla at the conference. "A new Latin America is being created here."
The health statistics are scary. According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, obesity rates in U.S. Hispanics doubled between 1991 and 2001. Higher weight means a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some cancers and other problems. The CDC has found that the risk of diabetes for Mexican-Americans is twice that of similarly-aged non-Hispanic whites. Diabetes potentially leads to amputation, blindness, kidney failure, heart disease and death.
People still in Mexico are also suffering.
"Twenty to 30 years ago, we had lots of traditional foods that were very healthy," said Dr. Hector Bourges, director of nutrition at the National Institute of Medical Science and Nutrition in Mexico City. "However, with urbanization we adopted a model we shouldn't have adopted - the Northern countries' model."
Traditional foods were seen as old-fashioned, people began having less time to prepare foods, and fewer people ate at home.
Obesity and its related illnesses are hardly just a problem for the Hispanic community.
"If we continue at this rate, by 2040 everyone in the U.S. will be overweight," said John Foreyt, professor in the department of medicine at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine.
But scientists say hope exists: Bringing traditional, healthy and tasty Mexican foods back to the family dinner table - and introducing them in American households - is a huge step in the right direction.
At the conference, Oldways Preservation Trust, a food-issues think tank in Boston and the conference organizer, worked with nutrition experts to revamp its Latin American Diet Pyramid, a food pyramid full of healthy Latin American foods.
The pyramid recommends eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains/tubers/beans/nuts at every meal. In the Mexican diet, this means corn, beans, squash, rice and chiles, among many others.
Poultry, fish, plant oils (like olive, corn, peanut or canola) and dairy foods are recommended daily. Red meat, sweets - typically honey - and eggs are for weekly consumption only.
"Traditionally, sweets were not a thing of everyday," said Hannia Campos, associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
Many foods are connections to the past, originating during the time before Europeans came to Latin America. Foods are also a connection to flavor. Native American, Spanish and African influences all have their finger in Latin American cuisine, and the fusion is delicious.
"Mexico, in particular, has made food brilliant," said Dr. Adolfo Chavez, chief of the Salvador Zubiran Medical Sciences and Nutrition Institute in Mexico City.
Daily physical activity forms the base of the pyramid, and alcohol should be consumed in moderation. The pyramid is quite similar to the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, the gold standard of diets, which has been proven in study after study to reduce heart disease, certain cancers and Type 2 diabetes.
But as we all know, changing how we eat is difficult. Keeping the following themes in mind may help:
● Variety is key. Bring multiple colors, textures and flavors to your diet. Add tropical fruits; they are full of fiber, vitamins and antioxidants, and taste. Choose fresh local produce, if possible.
● Use just a little bit of meat for flavor in stews and other dishes. A small amount can go a long way, and too much is unhealthy (red meat and processed meat have been associated with heart disease). Instead, add beans, which studies have shown lower cholesterol and have lots of vitamins like folate for pregnant women. They also contain fiber, which can prevent heart disease and certain cancers, like colon.
● Make dining an event, not something you do in your car or on the run. Set the table, make it appealing and fun, and eat slowly. "Eating in the company of other people is essential for good nutrition and health," said Bourges.
● Have a big dinner or party once a week; bring family and friends together. The rest of the week eat simple, flavorful dishes that take less time to prepare.
● Choose smaller plates to trick yourself into eating less.
● Food is emotional, passionate, creative - take advantage.
Small changes add up to big health benefits. Losing just 5 percent of your body weight - that's 10 pounds if you're 200 pounds - can significantly reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other weight-related illnesses. Here are a few little changes to try at home:
Replace candy bars with a square of at least 70 percent dark chocolate, one of Latin America's best gifts to the world. When the cocoa content is this high, your body benefits from the same heart-protecting compounds that red wine contains. These squares do have some fat, but not as much as regular candy bars. Eat only one or two squares of a bar a day. The flavor is so strong that's probably all you'll want.
Add other traditional Latin American grains to your diet, such as quinoa and amaranth. Also continue to use more familiar ones like corn and brown rice. These grains are great sources of complex carbohydrates, and they give you long-lasting energy. They are also full of nutrients like magnesium and B vitamins.
Eat cooked beans, instead of refried beans. They have far less saturated fat, yet still provide the nutrients, protein and fiber.
Replace potato chips, cheese puffs and the like with a handful of peanuts or almonds. Nuts are an excellent source of healthy unsaturated fat, they make you feel full, they have no cholesterol, and they are full of protein and fiber. The salt on the nut is less than what is found in chips, but go for low-salt varieties anyway to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Eat a handful for a snack in the afternoon or between breakfast and lunch.
Choose corn tortillas over flour tortillas. Studies show that whole grains, like corn or whole-wheat flour, help protect against heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer. And they make you feel full for longer. At the very least, try whole-wheat tortillas, instead of flour. Refined flour has lost most of its beneficial nutrients and also triggers spikes in blood sugars, which is bad for diabetes.
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