Elena Rios: Insist on better U.S. nutrition guidelines or Latinos will keep bearing the brunt of health crises

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COVID-19 has ravaged Hispanic communities across the country. Nationwide, Latinx Americans are nearly five times more likely than White Americans to be hospitalized from the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Here in California, Hispanics account for over half of all cases, yet make up just 39% of the population. In San Diego County, Latinx individuals account for almost two-thirds of coronavirus cases — despite making up only 34% of the population.

Hispanics are suffering and dying at far higher rates than White Americans, in part because of poor nutrition. Nearly 30% of people living in predominately Hispanic counties report difficulty accessing healthy food.

Diet is a “key contributor to disparities in many chronic diseases and conditions,” according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. And these conditions put patients at risk of serious COVID-19 complications. Patients with chronic conditions are 12 times likelier to die from the virus than healthy people.

In other words, there’s a surprisingly simple solution to close the health gaps between Hispanics and White people — just improve Latinx Americans’ access to healthier foods.

Of course, for many reasons, that’s easier said than done.

Consider the share of Latinx Americans who reside in food deserts — areas with limited access to grocery stores and supermarkets. Roughly 30% of Hispanic Americans live in these neighborhoods.

Hispanics are also twice as likely as White Americans to live in poverty. That makes purchasing healthy foods — which are often more expensive than processed alternatives — much less realistic.

This all has a measurable impact on health outcomes. According to a report from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, “the highest rates of obesity and diabetes are among people who live in lower-income communities and have worse food environments.” Hispanic youth suffer from obesity at higher rates than their White counterparts. And Hispanic adults are nearly twice as likely as White Americans to receive a diabetes diagnosis.

The federal government has immense — but mostly behind the scenes — influence over Americans’ diets. Every five years, the government releases a set of nutritional recommendations, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs). The goal is to “help Americans make smart choices about food and physical activity so they can live healthier lives,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These guidelines shape everything from school lunch menus to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Communities of color disproportionately utilize these programs, especially in California. Latinx Californians account for more than half of all SNAP participants in the state, according to data from the California Department of Social Services.

As a result, one would imagine the DGAs’ creators would specifically consider these groups’ needs. But they don’t. The DGAs are designed only for healthy people — even though two-thirds of U.S. adults, and 80% of Hispanics, are overweight or obese.

The guidelines also ignore the science on diets geared toward weight loss, such as those low in carbohydrates. In addition to helping people shed extra pounds, research demonstrates that low-carb diets lower blood pressure and reduce heart disease risk. Some studies show these diets can even reverse type 2 diabetes.

Given that Hispanic adults disproportionately suffer from many diet-related conditions, it’s unconscionable that the guidelines haven’t taken this research into account.

Our nation’s changing demographics make this oversight even more troubling. Hispanics account for more than half of U.S. population growth since 2010 — and are projected to reach a population of 111 million people by 2060. In California, Hispanics are expected to make up half of the state’s population by 2060.

It’s simply unacceptable that the government’s official dietary guidelines effectively ignore America’s largest community of color.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to change course. The next DGAs will be released at the end of this year.

If we don’t insist on reliable dietary guidelines for every American — and focus on healthy cooking and healthy eating — communities of color across the nation, and in California, will continue to bear the brunt of our health crises, well after COVID-19 has run its course.

Rios is president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association. Roman serves on the Steering Committee of the National Hispanic Medical Association’s Southern California Chapter and lives in Downtown San Diego.

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