At 5 feet 4 inches, she had come to weigh 192 pounds, she said.
So when the opportunity arose to take part in a six-month program to learn to eat right and exercise, Ramirez said she jumped at the chance.
Since then she has lost more than 25 pounds, continues to eat healthier food and exercises regularly. She has even had to buy smaller-sized clothing, she said.
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The dietary program, implemented by Brawley-based Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo, is over with, but the lessons learned made a lasting impression on Ramirez, who is from Imperial.
“If I get hungry and want to snack on something, I’ll just grab some fruit,” Ramirez said.
Not bad for a young girl who said there was a time when she wouldn’t even eat vegetables. And while Ramirez’s narrative is a positive one, it also highlights a pervasive problem that many local teens and families must contend with — particularly in the Latino community.
Within the Hispanic community it has historically been more acceptable to be overweight, said Dr. Guadalupe Ayala, San Diego State University public health professor and co-director of the Prevention Research Center, noting that in certain Latino cultures to be heavier is equated with prosperity and making money.
“To be skinny is a sign of poverty or working hard labor,” Ayala said.
The research center has taken part in previous studies that revealed gender also plays a part in the development of childhood obesity among Latinos, Ayala said.
Mexican parents tend to limit physical activity for their daughters out of fear of injuries, or impacting their menstrual cycle, Ayala said.
Parents will also sometimes insist on having daughters around the house so that they can assist with taking care of the family, Ayala said.
And parents of young boys tend to encourage them to eat more so as to grow up to be “big and strong,” Ayala said, adding that recent surveys have also revealed that boys are more likely to be dieting than girls.
“Kids who are ages 7-13 shouldn’t have to be dieting, just eating healthy,” Ayala said.
Here in Imperial County, 47 percent of fifth-, seventh-, and ninth-grade children were overweight or obese in 2010, according to a 2011 study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and California Center for Public Health Advocacy, ranking the county among the top 10 counties in the state for the prevalence of overweight and obese youths.
And what research has shown is that there isn’t just one factor that determines whether a person will become obese.
The county’s high unemployment rate and poverty level are thought to contribute to the high childhood obesity rate, said Linda Rubin, dietary program director at El Centro Regional Medical Center.
“It is kind of true,” Rubin said, “poverty and obesity go together.”
While race and ethnicity may also play a part, Rubin said, they are not guarantors of developing weight problems.
“We can’t say that Latinos have more of a propensity to be heavy,” Rubin said, adding that physical activity, or a lack of it, can play a much larger role. “That we have to encourage kids to play outside has everything to do with society in general.”
Studies have also shown that being a little overweight is not in itself a bad thing as long as one exercises and eats healthy foods, Rubin said. And while the typical Mexican diet is not unhealthy per se, the manner in which it is prepared poses concerns for nutritionists, Rubin said.
“They should be using more vegetable and canola oil instead of lard,” Rubin said.
Educating the public on making the appropriate changes to their cooking habits goes a long way toward battling childhood obesity, Rubin said. Nor should parents refrain from trying to get their children to eat healthy foods. As a child ages their taste buds evolve, so any particular food item that was previously disliked may eventually find favor with a child, Rubin said.
Aside from a newfound affinity for fruits and vegetables, Ramirez said she often will order from the children’s menu when dining out with her family because of the smaller portions. Instead of soda, she orders water with her meal, too.
Losing weight has also caused a noticeable difference in Ramirez’s attitude and has boosted her confidence in herself, she said.
“Now I try to do things and I know that I can do them,” Ramirez said with a smile.
Staff writer Julio Morales can be reached at 760-335-4665 or at firstname.lastname@example.org