Monday, January 10, 2005

A Problem in Starr County

An article by Elizabeth Weil investigating widespread obesity among children in Starr County, Texas, in the New York Times Magazine, January 2, 2005, ("Heavy Questions") is notable for several reasons. First, it points to an odd reversal of historical norms. Ms. Weil notes that while 59 percent of Starr County's children reside in homes whose income fall below the poverty line, but that "in the strange new arithmetic of want" poverty no longer equals malnutrition. Indeed, quite the opposite. "By the time they are 4 years old, 24 percent of the children are overweight or obese; by kindergarten, 28 percent; and by elementary school, 50 percent of the boys are overweight or obese, along with 35 percent of the girls," she writes.

According to Ms. Weil, Starr County's child obesity epidemic - a somewhat more extreme manifestation of a growing nationwide trend - has drawn researchers to study its causes. The researchers found that with the local public school offering "breakfasts containing as many as 600 calories and lunches with 800, every child was on track to gain at least nine pounds during the school year." An examination of the schoolchildren showed that 13 percent of the prekindergarteners and 18 percent of the kindergarten children showed signs of possible insulin resistence, a potential precursor to diabetes. One of the researchers, Peggy Visio at the University of Texas Health Science Center, complained, "People who were supposed to be helping these children ... were teaching them the wrong things. They wanted to make the children happy by giving them what they wanted. It was making the children sick." Of course, the children were also exposed to the new ubiquitous presence to sugary soda drinks and fast food franchises where the fare is fatty, calorie-heavy and very cheap. But Ms. Weil spends considerable time focusing - as the researchers have - on what may be the real source of the problem: overly permissive parents. "Guilt is a major problem in dealing with childhood obesity - the guilt parents feel in denying their children good or inadvertantly making them self conscious about their weight, the guilt children try to instill in their parents in order to get what they want," Ms. Weil writes.
"A lot of these parents give in to their kids too much," said [Olga] Smedley, [the locak public school principal], a pretty and trim mother of three who grew up in the Rio Grande City area and does her best to resist her chubby 6-year-old's relentless requests for shrimp scampi. The upended power dynamics can lead parents to cede authority to children and lead children to bully their parents. "These children threaten their parents," Smedley said. "They say: 'If you spank me, or if you do this, I'm going to call child protective services. I'm going to call the police." Smedley explained that the kids are just being kids. by the parents perhaps feeling vulnerable, capitulate. "Who's in control?" Smedley asked, her eyes widening and her frustration apparent. "I told the parents - it's because you're allowing it."
Ms. Weil notes that illegal immigration has compounded the problem in Starr County, since any call to the police or to child protective services by the child of illegal aliens could deliver the entire family to the immigration police. But the threat works just as well for non-illegal families, since the police and child protective services would be obliged to investigate any complaint and the parents would be put on the defensive.

When school officials adopted some of the menu-changes - reducing the fat and sugar content - that the researchers suggested:
...the children, not surprisingly, were not happy, a feeling they expressed by staging lunchroom protests and hanging signs outside some cafeterias that read "No more diet" and "We want to eat cool stuff - pizza, nachos, burritos, cheese fries." Visio expected as much from the kids, but what caught her short was how muich the children's hounding got to their parents, and how often those parents caved to their children's shortsighted, unhealthful wishes. "We have one morbidly obese girl, and since we changed the menus, her mother has been stuffing her backpack with three bags of chips and three candy bars every day," Visio said. "This is in addition to a full breakfast and lunch. Some of these parents are just afraid to say no. They love their children, but their children have them convinced that of they eat a healthy diet, they will starve."
Children cannot make proper decisions for themselves. They lack the education, cognitive ability and real-world experience to understand what is good for them and what isn't. Most societies around the world understand this. American society used to understand this This cultural reversal of power between parents and children deprives parents of the authority and discipline needed to successful raise children. Worse, it endangers childrens by placing them at the mercy of their own wiles and whims.

Roel Gonzalez, a school superintendent related a story Ms. Weil said she heard over and over from older residents of Starr County:
When I went to school they gave you colored coupons," [Gonzalez] said. "The blue one meant you paid for your lunch. The white one was a reduced price. The pink one was free, and you didn't want to be seen with the pink one. People would tear you apart. Now government assistance is a major part of the fabric of society. In addition to free meals for their children in school, many adults in Starr County receive food stamps, health care and utility and housing subsidies. Much of this is beneficial, of course, but Gonzalez also explained that it has contributed to eroding the old norms. A while back, for instance, Gonzalez caught a girl smoking marijuana. "I told her that's not what I would call normal behavior for a girl of 12, and she said, 'It's normal in my house.' It's norma in my house. We've got to change what's normal."
Finally, Ms. Weil's article draws attention because it suggests a genetic propensity for weight gain on the part of Hispanics:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, rates of childhood obesity are among the worst in the Mexican-American population, and Star County is 98 percent Mexican-American. The US Department of Health and Human Services, among other sources, also shows that as socio-economic status falls, rates of childhood obesity rise, and Starr County is desperately poor. Not only is Starr County in Texas - one of the fattest states in the Union - but it is also on the US-Mexico border, the fattest part of Texas. The overall effect is devastating: almost half the adults in Starr County have Type 2 diabetes.
Given that Ms. Weil's article also notes that a large percentage of Starr County's population comprises illegal aliens who have crossed the border from neighboring Mexico and settled in the ramshackle colonias, "jerry-rigged neighborhoods" that "lack adequate municipal services," the term Mexican-American may be something of a euphemism for a politically incorrect truth.
According to Nancy Butte, director of the Viva la Familia Project at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, 40 to 60 percent of the prevalence of childhood obesity in the Hispanic population can be attributed to genetic factors. "Much has been written about children who are overweight," said Butte, explaining her study, " but little is known about why Hispanic children in particular tend to be more at risk for obesity." Many believe that there is, most likely, a set of genes that makes some people more susceptible than others. Butte suggests that at least part of the genetic component may be related to "the thrifty gene hypothesis," the theory that some combinations of chromosomes create a situation in which cells are more inclined to store caloies efficiently for times of scarcity. Some researchers have speculated that because many Mexican-Americans are descendants of American Indian hunter-gatherers, who evolved to store fat more easily for times of famine, those living a sedentary life in modern westernized societies with access to fast food may be prone to gain weight.
Whether or not Hispanics possess a genetic component which makes them more susceptible to weight gain than other ethnic groups remains a question for geneticists to resolve. But the appearance of even an oblique hint that there may exist meaningful genetic differences between racial/ethnic groups in the New York Times, where politically correct orthodoxy usually brands even the contemplation of that possibility inherently racist and unacceptable, shows that the entrenched resistance to these ideas continues to crumble.

3 Comments:

At 11:55 AM , Anonymous over weight obese said...

Hello Blogger, been looking for the latest info on cure obesity and found A Problem in Starr County. Though not exactly what I was searching for, it did get my attention. Interesting post, thanks for a great read.

 
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