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Nutrition Transition in Mexico and Other Latino Countries


In the past, the most common nutritional problem in Latin American countries was undernutrition.  However, these countries have recently undergone a nutritional transition characterized by an increase in energy-dense diets and increase in the prevalence of noncommunicable chronic diseases (NCCD) such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.  Researchers reviewed the available literature to determine the characteristics of the nutrition transition with emphasis in data from Mexico, Brazil, and Chile.  They found that some countries in Latin America like Brazil, Mexico and Chile are suffering from increased prevalence of overweight, obesity and NCCD related to dietary changes such as increased consumption of higher energy-dense processed foods and decreased consumption of fruits and vegetables.  
International Life Sciences Institute, July 2004; 62(7)S149-S157 (Rivera J et al.)

Diets of Latin-American and African-American Women

University of Hawaii researchers surveyed 271 African-American women and 234 Latin-American women, and assessed their diets. They found that the African-American women consumed more calories and more fat, while the Latino women consumed more carbohydrates and more fiber. While the Latino women weighed less, they were perceived themselves as heavier and reported “greater body image dissatisfaction.”
Obesity Research. April 2004; 12(4):652-60 (Sánchez-Johnsen et al.)

More Acculturation, Fewer Fruits and Vegetables

Acculturation is the extent to which mainstream customs, beliefs, and practices are adopted by immigrants.  Researchers in Washington State recruited 1,689 adult Hispanic and non-Hispanic participants to investigate whether acculturation is a predictor of fruit, vegetable, and fat intake among Hispanics.  Using the National 5-A Day for Better Health program dietary assessment instruments, researchers determined that highly acculturated Hispanics in Washington State consume significantly fewer fruits and vegetables than less acculturated Hispanics. 
Journal of the American Dietetics Association, January 2004; 104:51-57 (Neuhouser M et al.) 

Type 2 Diabetes and the Vegetarian Diet

While there are currently few data specifically connecting vegetarian diets and diabetes prevention or treatment, it is known that many of the specific foods that make up a vegetarian diet have advantages in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.  These foods include whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy proteins, and plant sterols.  This summary article from researchers at the University of Toronto details the benefits of different plant foods, and concludes that evidence documented in both cohort studies and intervention studies show that vegetarian diets “can help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease—a major complication of type 2 diabetes.”
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. September 2003; 78(suppl):610S–6S. [Jenkins D et al.]

Colon Cancer Increases as Mexican Diet Fades

Researchers in Los Angeles examined whether the changing incidence of colorectal cancer in their city’s Mexican-American population was due to changes in dietary practices in this group.  Cancer incidence and dietary intake data were obtained for over 35,000 Latinos of Mexican national origin – the largest sample of Mexican-origin Latinos of any such study in the US.  The incidence of colorectal cancer saw the greatest increase between the first and second generations.  Nearly all dietary changes due to acculturation also occurred between the first and second generations.  These findings suggest an association between colorectal cancer risk and certain dietary components. Higher intakes of alcohol and refined carbohydrates were major risk factors, and lower consumption of vegetables was a protective factor.
Nutrition and Cancer 2003, Volume 45, Issue 2 (Monroe et al.)

Acculturation and Obesity in Hispanic Adolescents

Between first and second generation US immigrants, a striking increase in overweight and obesity occurs.  A study using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health set out to determine the underlying factors that cause this phenomenon.  More than 8,600 adolescents of varying ethnicity were assessed for overweight and several factors including diet.  Researchers concluded that immigrant adolescents are likely to be influenced by the “obesigenic” environment of the US, including sedentary lifestyles, large portion sizes, heavy advertising of high-fat, energy-dense foods, and mass media.  Lifestyle differences between foreign- and US-born Hispanic adolescent immigrants are likely to underlie the striking increase in overweight between first and subsequent generations of US residence.
Social Science & Medicine, April 2003; 57:2023–2034 (Gordon-Larsena P et al.)

Dietary Trends in Latin-American Populations

In an effort to track the rise in chronic disease among people who move away from their traditional diets, scientists at Tufts University synthesized data about diets and health from many sources. They found a close association between dietary change (starting with the rich) and the health impacts of a more processed, energy-dense diet.
Cadernos de Saúde Pública. 2003; 19 suppl 1:S87-99. (Bermudez et al.)

Vegans have lower prevalence of hypertension

Researchers from Oxford University studied a large cohort of British men and women in the context of diet, lifestyle, and disease risk. They found that hypertension (both systolic and diastolic) is significantly less prevalent among vegan men and women (5.8% and 7.7%, respectively) as compared to omnivorous men and women (15.0% and 12.1%, respectively). The researchers suspect that this is related to the vegan participants’ lower average Body Mass Index.
Public Health Nutrition. 2002 Oct 1;5(5):DOI 10.1079/PHN2002332. (Appleby et al.)

Increasing Vegetable Intake May Decrease Risk of Breast Cancer

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine compared the diets of 240 South Asian women who had breast cancer with age-matched South Asian women who did not. They found that there was a slight reduction in the risk of breast cancer among women who identified as lifelong vegetarians compared with those who identified as lifelong meat-eaters. The researchers believe that reduction in the risk of breast cancer among lifelong vegetarians is most likely related to increased consumption of vegetables and pulses (legumes).
International Journal of Cancer. 2002 May 10. 99, 238-244. (dos Santos Silva et al.)

Increased Obesity, Chronic Disease in Thailand as Dietary Patterns Shift

The dietary intake in Thailand has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, with a trend toward increased consumption of animal fat, animal meat and convenience foods, and decreased consumption of Thai staples and side dishes.  The prevalence of childhood and adolescent obesity in Thailand is increasing, and adults are facing increased incidence of chronic disease. Today, diet-related chronic degenerative diseases are the leading cause of death in Thailand.
Public Health Nutrition. 2002 Feb;5(1A):183-9.  (Kosulwat V.) 

A Motivational Intervention in Black Churches: Results of the Eat for Life Trial

This study at Emory University reported on Eat for Life, a health intervention initiative to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among African Americans. Fourteen black churches were randomly assigned to give various levels of intervention and support to participants. One group received a one-time motivational health counseling call, while another group received a series of health counseling calls, enjoying ongoing motivational support. In a follow-up after 1 year, fruit and vegetable intake was assessed by three food frequency questionnaires. Change in fruit and vegetable intake was significantly greater in the group that received several counseling calls than in the group that received only one. Ongoing counseling support appears to be an effective strategy for helping people change the way they eat, and Black churches are an excellent setting to provide and evaluate health promotion programs. 

American Journal of Public Health. October 2001, Vol 91, No. 10: 1686-1693. (Resnicow et al.)

Nutritional Consequences of the African Diaspora

Africans carried their foods and dietary customs into diaspora throughout the Americas as a result of the European slave trade. Their descendants represent populations at different stages of a nutrition transition. West Africans are more often in the early stage, where there are many challenges and conditions like undernutrition and nutrient deficiencies. Many Caribbean populations represent the middle stages, with undernutrition and obesity co-existing. African Americans and black populations in the United Kingdom suffer the worst, from the consequences of caloric excess and diets high in fat and animal products. Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and certain cancers are prevalent in the African-American and Afro-British populations, and they are beginning to emerge in populations that never before faced these diseases, as diets become more Western.
Annual Review of Nutrition, 2001;21:47-71. (Luke et al.)