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Hispanic health issues under the microscope

HARLINGEN, August 14, 2005 — Nearly two years after it received its first appropriations, a national research center that studies nutrition habits among Hispanics has kicked off several projects that address everything from insulin resistance to attitudes toward childhood obesity.

It’s groundbreaking work, and officials hope they’ll receive funds in future years so the research can continue.

Drawing on a $1 million appropriation for fiscal year 2005, the U.S. Hispanic Nutrition Research and Education Center, based out of the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, has funded studies throughout the Rio Grande Valley and Texas on nutrition issues affecting Hispanics. For the past two years, the center has relied on federal funds earmarked for the center.

Where the money will come from in future years is uncertain. The center did not receive additional funds for 2006 and is relying on a “carryover” of 2005 funds.

“If you’re dependent on earmarked funds only, you can’t do long-term planning,” said Dr. Daniel Hale, director of the center and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. “If the funding goes away, the center goes away.”

Researchers from Valley institutions and from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio are studying a wide variety of nutritional problems that directly impact Hispanics, particularly Mexican-Americans. Study topics include a nutritional assessment of the Valley, the reasons why children adopt particular food choices, the effects of soy on people with underactive and overactive thyroid, factors contributing to obesity and efforts to encourage exercise.

Most of these studies are using Valley residents as subjects. In the future, researchers hope to expand studies to include Hispanics of other backgrounds from around the country.

“Most studies related to human nutrition have focused on non-Hispanic whites or African-Americans,” Hale said. “Now there’s a recognition that we need to focus on the unique aspects of Hispanic culture.”

Mexican Americans suffer disproportionately from diabetes compared to the general population, and obesity rates are particularly high along the border. The center’s research can help tackle these trends, Hale said.

“Ultimately, the goal is prevention,” he said.

Hale will soon launch a study on food preferences among migrant farmworker families, examining the reasons why children develop certain food preferences, how to encourage behavior changes and what healthful foods garner the best responses. As part of the study, families will undergo “taste tests” of fruits and vegetables, some receiving samples to take home.

Read more at: Brownsville Herald

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