Newswise — LOS ANGELES -- Cedars-Sinai’s new director of Obesity Medicine in the Department of Surgery, Amanda Velazquez, MD, is determined to help prevent and treat Type 2 diabetes and obesity in the Latinx community.

"Our community is disproportionally affected by both conditions, which affect many organ systems and can be challenging to manage,” said Velazquez. “But by taking first steps toward a healthy lifestyle, individuals can improve their weight and blood sugars." 

In Los Angeles County, 29.4% of Latinxs are obese, compared with 17.6% of white people, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health. Latinxs in the U.S. also are more likely to become diabetic. They have a 50% chance of developing Type 2 diabetes, compared to white people, who have a 40% chance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But by making lifestyle changes, many can take steps to improve their health, Velazquez said. She wants to spread awareness and empower Latinxs so they can avoid the complications of obesity and diabetes.

The Culprits

A poor diet and insufficient exercise are obvious factors that can lead to excess weight gain. But one’s environment plays a role as well. It’s hard to be active without access to parks, sidewalks or affordable workouts, and it’s tough to eat well without access to markets that sell affordable, healthy food.

Genetics also can be a culprit. The relationship between an individual’s genes and their environment, known as epigenetics, is a major contributor, too.

“If you have a family member, parents or grandparents with a history of diabetes and obesity, that can put you more at risk for developing these diseases," Velazquez said.

Getting a diagnosis of prediabetes (abnormal blood sugar levels) can signal that it’s time to seek help and improve one’s health. An individual with prediabetes must take extra care and work to prevent their blood sugar levels from rising enough to cause Type 2 diabetes. Frightening as this might sound, Velazquez says it’s never too late to develop a healthy lifestyle.

“It’s important to know when you’re trying to get started with eating better, you should think about what’s realistic—what do you think you can do and manage? What’s reasonable?” Velazquez said.

Small Steps

To avoid becoming frustrated, Velazquez recommends setting realistic goals.  

“If you know you love having tortillas and you make a goal to have no tortillas, that’s not realistic,” she said. “Maybe if you have three tortillas every meal, you can try to cut back to two. Maybe if you love drinking soda, you can start trying to switch over to seltzer water, which is bubbly but typically has no added sugar."

In Latin culture, it's common to eat carbohydrate-rich foods, such as bolillo (bread baguette), tortillas, arroz (rice) and pan dulce (sweet bread). But consuming too much can overwhelm the body.

"The body starts having trouble being able to pump out enough of the hormones that control and regulate the blood sugar, making the body more prone to developing prediabetes or diabetes," Velazquez said.

Because cutting out favorite foods might not be a sustainable solution, she recommends enjoying them in smaller portions. Portion control is challenging in the U.S., where supersized snacks, pastries and meals line grocery store shelves and gas station displays and appear on many menus. Velazquez recommends forming healthier habits by choosing whole foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes (beans) and lean proteins.

For those who need extra help, Cedars-Sinai offers programs through the Weight Loss Center that include surgical and nonsurgical options to help patients lose pounds and maintain a healthy weight. “Obesity truly is a medical disease that is chronic and lifelong, and we want to support our patients on their journey to better health,” Velazquez said. 

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Bariatric Surgery Myths and Misconceptions