By Lea Thompson
SAN ANTONIO — Latino health is affected by factors like food, genetics and lifestyle. Unfortunately, the combination of traditional cultural dishes found at home and increasingly sedentary lifestyle in America make Hispanic populations more vulnerable to serious diseases like diabetes.
In 2013, The City of San Antonio Metropolitan Health District reported that more than one in seven San Antonio residents have been diagnosed with diabetes. If the current population continues to share these same food and lifestyle values, the next generation will (suffer).
“Food is everything for us Latinos,” Sylvia Meléndez Klinger, an RDN and founder of Hispanic Food Communications, said. “Every week is something! Everything we do is centered around food, and our food and our culture affect us. It’s a complex problem — we adopt a sedentary life-style here, we tend to have more snacks, add more fat to our diet.”
Melendez pointed out that American urban centers like San Antonio don’t offer as many public transportation (opportunities) and walking options compared to cities in Latin American countries. Melendez, whose family originally hails from Puerto Rico, understands that Hispanic families pass down their culture with food, but without moderation or exercise, they pass down health problems.
“It’s about experimenting, “Melendez said. My abuelita used to make arroz con gandules. She would start with a big cup of oil. When I got older, I realized how much that was. There is no reason to add that much oil or salt, it’s not necessary.”
Melendez works to teach families and parents that they can preserve the tastes and flavors found in their cultural foods, but they can modify the recipes to be healthier, without destroying the dish itself.
Although many Hispanic cultures often use the frying method to prepare foods like enchiladas, the process adds more fat and cholesterol to the dish. Instead, families should try baking or grilling meats and vegetables to maximize the food’s health benefits. Melendez also recommends that families experiment with different seasoning combinations to create new and exciting flavors.
“I don’t want people to think of their food as a ‘diet’, it’s about how to take down some of those calories without really noticing,” Melendez said. “You can keep the texture, the flavors, everything. We just take down the calories.”
Melendez recommends using the choosemyplate.gov site for ideas on how to fill plates with healthy fruit and vegetable options, which should make up at least half of the meal. Families can avoid needless beverage calories with low-calorie sodas or low-calorie flavored water options.
Although parents often sacrifice health, diet, exercise, and self-care for the sake of their children, Melendez insists that when parents practice self-care, they perform at their best and set a good example for their family.
“The healthier I am, the better I can take care of my husband, my mother, my children. There’s an army of people counting on us, but we need to take care of ourselves first. That way, there’s less problems and a longer, better quality of life,” Melendez said.
Melendez answers readers’ health questions and shares her recipes for delicious foods and seasonings like sofrito, pizza, and fish tacos on her site, hispanic nutrition.com.