Being overweight can have a devastating impact on a person’s lifestyle.
Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea and a number of other ailments can be traced back to the amount and kind of food we eat.
For the Latino community, it can be more challenging. Three in four women of Mexican heritage are overweight or obese, according to information at www.womenshealth. gov. The website also found that six in 10 Latinos are not physically active, making it harder to maintain a healthy weight.
Overall, Latinos of all ages have among the highest rates of obesity compared to other races and ethnic groups in California, according to a report by the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California.
But beyond the statistics, Dr. Barry Sanchez has seen the problem firsthand.
“We had a patient in our medical weight-loss program,” said Sanchez, director of Bariatric Surgery at the Ventura County Medical Center. “She was from Mexico and went back there and lost 20 pounds because she was walking everywhere and cooking all her own food. She came back here and gained it all back in a month.”
The ease of transportation and the abundance of fast food in the United States, poor diet choices and other factors cause a number of obesity problems. And when diets fail to consistently help those who are severely obese, surgery is often the final option.
To help the region’s Latino community deal with obesity, Sanchez came to Ventura County last year to lead the effort to launch the one-stop Ventura Bariatrics comprehensive surgical program at the Magnolia Family Medical Clinic on Gonzales Road in Oxnard.
A Ventura County Medical Center-affiliated clinic, the bariatric center is designed to treat patients who are severely obese. Bariatrics is a branch of medicine concerned with the causes, prevention and treatment of obesity.
The center has been opened since March, with the first surgeries conducted in June. Since March, more than 200 people have enrolled in the program, Sanchez said.
Potential patients are screened and psychologically evaluated to see if they are good candidates for surgery and are willing to put in the time and effort needed to succeed.
“They have to work hard and stick with it. I tell them it’s all or nothing,” Sanchez said.
Doctors at the center then work with the patient to carefully select the proper surgical procedure, which can include laparoscopic gastric bypass, gastric open bypass and laparoscopic gastric banding procedures that are performed at Ventura County Medical Center.
But the program doesn’t stop there, Sanchez said.
“I tell them they have become a patient for life. The center makes them come back all the time,” he said, with the patients receiving lifelong post-operative care, counseling and support.
“One of the biggest things is that people don’t have to accept they are overweight and diabetic. We can help.”
Sanchez, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, came to Ventura County from the San Francisco Bay area. “I knew Ventura County had a large Latino population and a large diabetic population and I thought this was a good opportunity to bring something to this underserved population,” he said. “They needed the biggest help. I’ve seen a lot of people who are overweight, young and diabetic. This surgery has proven to be successful for long- term weight loss.”
But Sanchez also knew that there were cultural barri- ers to deal with. While residents of Mexico are generally healthier because they are more physically active and cook healthier food, once they cross the border into the United States, the situation drastically changes.
“If they don’t make a lot of money, fast food is the cheapest,” he said. “I’m a realist. One of our challenges is substitution, cutting back on carbohydrates and starches. People don’t spend a lot of time learning what is good for them.”
Self-esteem and working with the entire family structure is another challenge.
“There is a social prejudice against the obese. People make fun of them,” Sanchez said. “And so they have a defense mechanism — emotional eating and drinking (of alcohol). If those issues are not handled before surgery, they will still be an issue after surgery.”
For that reason, potential patients are evaluated by psychologists and receive counseling.
“In the Latino population, they may have home issues that have to be dealt with,” he said. “In the Hispanic culture it’s all about parties and food. They need to have the social support of their family.”
The language barrier is another issue that Sanchez and the center’s staff are actively working on.
“My coordinator helps me take in all the information and translate it into Spanish and get the information out there. All the materials are bilingual,” he said. “Everyone at the clinic speaks Spanish and everyone at the hospital speaks Spanish.”
Sanchez estimates that 50 percent of the patients that he sees are Latino.
“I think it should be much higher,” he said. “One of the challenges now is getting the information out to the Latino population. But we are starting to pick up the pace with marketing. We are also offering more public outreach programs.”