A New Year’s resolution, of sorts

There’s an article in today’s NYT (thank you, Mommy) called “East Meets West, Adding Pounds and Peril.” It’s part of a series the paper is running on diabetes in New York City, showing what a critically common, but often overlooked, health problem diabetes is. I have several relatives with diabetes, including my dad, and my parents and Erik have been telling me for years that I’d better watch out or I’m going to get it too. Well, I knew that in theory, but didn’t give the idea enough credit to change my lifestyle.

Perhaps because of this, “East Meets West” hit home particularly hard for me. The article is about first- and second-generation Asian American children and adolescents, and the way the American lifestyle and eating habits have caused diabetes and obesity rates to explode into their communities. Food has long played an important role in the acculturation of immigrants. For first-generation kids, American foods and food habits are one of the easiest everyday ways for them to claim their own American lifestyles, different from the old-country ways of their parents. For the parents, too, feeding their kids well can be a way to show that they’ve achieved prosperity and plenty in their new country. What people generally don’t realize is that the traditional eating habits, poverty-induced as they are, are often better for their health. Simple, meager food, heavy on the vegetables and sparing with the meat and oils, and plenty of physical activity are the hallmarks of rural living in China and many other countries.

Mommy has been expounding her theory of this for a while now. She raised us very healthily by modern standards, doing her best to get us to eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, and denying us access to such coveted snacks as Cheetos and Hawaiian Punch. Over time, however, our family’s habits shifted subtly for both better and worse. We began to eat more meals in restaurants and on the go, and packaged foods found their way into our household. At one point, I think when I was in middle school, we were eating a lot of prepared munchies like Hot Pockets (actually, I think what we had were Aussie Pies) and those little snack-size packs of Nutter Butter cookies. More recently than that, though, we’ve also made it a habit to visit the local farmers’ market each Sunday to load up on plenty of fresh organic produce. (I do mean load up: we buy so much, the vendors know us, and my parents often snag shopping carts from neighboring stores–which you’re not supposed to do–to carry our haul.) In pondering our current eating preferences and our quest for healthy living, Mommy often remarks that the new ideal is the same as what she knew in China: everything was organic, everything was made and bought fresh, staple grains meant brown rice or whole-wheat noodles, meat and fat were special treats, and everyone walked everywhere. These weren’t “healthy” choices, she points out; they were the only choices, given considerations of budget and availability. Lately, Mommy has also begun to wonder whether these circumstances are also at least partly responsible for my grandpa’s excellent health. For a man in his eighties, a hearty eater who was also a smoker until fairly recently, he’s remarkably robust. We used to put this down to his optimistic disposition, since doctors now know how bad stress is for your health, but Mommy thinks it might also be the unintentional result of some of Mao Zedong’s less successful policies.

Unlike those healthy rural folk who subsist on a vegetable-and-rice diet, my family is many generations removed from the land. The professor for the class I’m TAing for remarked yesterday that “Shanghainese are seen as the New Yorkers of China,” for their city smarts as well as their sophistication. My parents come from families of urbanites, people who are bankers or doctors, not peasants. As such, they’ve long enjoyed ampler and more varied foods than their rural counterparts. But changes in China’s domestic policies affected all that. In the late 1950s and early 60s, Mao implemented a disastrous transformation he called the Great Leap Forward, a badly organized and executed plan that was meant to make China competitive with highly industrialized nations like England and the United States. What resulted was widespread poverty and starvation. In the countryside, peasants were reduced to stripping tree bark and leaves for sustenance – and that’s if they were the lucky ones. In the mid-60s, the Cultural Revolution created further upheaval, upturning the social order and dispersing thousands of people into rural farming regions to be “reeducated.” As city dwellers and relatively well-to-do people, my parents’ families survived these bad times when many others perished, but they were not unscathed. It is with some irony that Mommy says that Mao is responsible for my grandpa’s health, but still, it might not be too far a stretch. During his middle age, when he was most susceptible to weight gain and physical deterioration, worsening conditions in China kept his meals small and vegetable-rich, and forced him to move around and exercise. Perhaps as a result, he has few of the health problems that plague many elderly people, and is still able to enjoy a reasonable amount of independence and mobility.

But all that is only an ironic prelude to the conditions facing young Asians in America. Where immigrants like my parents thought they would find health, wealth, and happiness, Asians – and everyone else – are now finding that the American way may not be so salubrious after all. For my parents, well-off and educated people, we do our own research and keep ourselves informed, and though we consistently overeat and underexercise, we know what it is we’re supposed to be doing. For more recent and less informed immigrants, such as those interviewed in “East Meets West,” it is not always so obvious that having fat kids is a bad thing. And there is not a lot of impetus behind getting this information out there where it can do the most good. As the article shows quite clearly, while there are some health practitioners and government officials trying to educate people about eating healthy, they can hardly compete with the constant barrage of information, advertising, and marketing dollars thrown out lavishly by food producers and corporations. A kid who gets 50 minutes of PE at school, or his parent who gets 10 minutes of nutrition info from the doctor or the community educator or whoever, and 3 hours of McDonald’s, KFC, and Domino’s commercials at home, aren’t going to remember the healthy message.

For Asians, all this is made worse by our vulnerability to diabetes, of which fact I was previously unaware. According to the NYT article, Asians are 60% more likely than whites to get Type II diabetes, and they get it at lower body weights than whites, too. So that means an Asian person who isn’t visibly as fat as other people might already be at a dangerous level regarding diabetes (and, I would guess, other health problems). Put this together with the cultural predilection for eating and plump kids, and regular old American bad food habits, and you have what amounts to a critically urgent community health issue that isn’t getting the publicity it needs. As the article puts it,

Epidemiologists know that 14 percent of Asian children in New York are obese, more than twice the rate among their parents. And there is mounting evidence – including soaring diabetes rates in major cities in China, and in other countries with Chinese immigrants – that New York will soon experience a similar explosion as more Asians arrive and have their first encounters with Western ways.

If it’s true in New York, I’d bet it’s true elsewhere in the nation as well. And given my own food and exercise habits, and my family’s history of diabetes, who am I to contradict? This article has finally managed to achieve what my parents and Erik have been trying to do for years, convince me that I really do need to change my ways and start watching my health before it’s too late. And that’s why I’m writing about this here, in hopes that the rest of you will pay attention too.

Go here to read the article.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]