June 20, 2003 – Cultural food patterns are passed from one generation to the next, a speaker at the Conference on Childhood Obesity held this week on St. Thomas said. But, she pointed out, "Culture is learned, and therefore can be unlearned."
Yvonne Bronner of Morgan State University focused on cultural and behavioral issues relating to obesity among African-American and other culturally diverse children in the United States in her presentation Thursday at the conference, held at the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort.
Bronner, who directs the master's and doctoral public health programs at Morgan State, defined culture as "the religious, social and behavioral rules that govern the way we live."
For example, Bronner said, the way a woman perceives her body weight has a lot to do with culture. Research indicates that compared to women of other races, African-American women identify a larger body size as "themselves" and the desired weight they would like to be.
In Africa, Bronner has found, body size is a factor of culture. People who are larger are considered powerful, and being larger is better when it comes to protection.
Other effects of culture on obesity relate to the way in which many children are raised, she said, citing the emphasis on "cleaning your plate of the food made available." She recalled her own experience: As a nutritionist she know well the wisdom of reducing portions so as to eat less. But while eating a large lunch, she found herself full but kept on eating and talking until the food was finished. "We are victimized by our habits," she said.
Another dietary situation within African-American culture is the emphasis on what are known as soul foods which are unhealthful, Bronner said. Among them: chitterlings, cornbread, barbecued ribs.
"Our goal is to limit those foods to celebratory events and change what we eat" on a regular basis, Bronner said.
Another factor, she noted, is the pervasiveness of "fast food" high in salt, sugar and cholesterol, especially in low-income communities and especially in areas frequented by children and young people. "It is very difficult for our students to walk to and from school without passing two or three 'opportunities,'" she said. "Any little gas station, any little convenience store are opportunities to have high-sodium foods."
With all this, Bronner said, there is hope – there are things that can be done about the crisis of obesity. "The industry is changing. Salads are available," she said "However, if you watch consumption patterns, people are not making the right decisions."
Establishing healthful patterns of food consumption can begin at the very beginning – when an infant is breast-fed, she said.
Today, 80 percent of mothers in the Virgin Islands breast-feed their babies – one of the highest rates in the nation, she said. This is highly encouraged by the Nutrition Education Program and the national Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program.
When breast-feeding ends, Bronner believes, the people who oversee the child's food consumption must take responsibility for a healthful eating program. This includes not just mothers and fathers, she said, but aunts, uncles, grandparents, godparents — anyone who influences the child's eating habits.
The aim of the conference, which ended at noon Friday, was to raise the level of concern about childhood obesity as a high public-health issue, according to its organizer, St. Thomas nutritionist Edward C. Jones, who is pursing his Ph.D. in nutritional sciences at Cornell University. The program was co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the V.I. Health Department and WIC
Another habit that should be encouraged is physical activity, Bronner said. "Any day that you eat, you need to exercise," she said. "If I can do it at 63, then you all can do it at your ages. Walking is a good place to begin. I am encouraged because I see families walking."
She cautioned that before beginning an exercise regimen, "you might want to check with your doctor."
Bronner has found that small changes can and do make a difference. A 10 percent reduction in body weight can reduce many health risks, she said.
But for the child to change, the family has to change, she said.
"We are the role models for our kids," echoed Judy F. Wilson, director of the nutrition services staff of the U.S.D.A. Office of Analysis, Nutrition and Evaluation. "We must practice what we preach and lead by example."
Wilson, whose staff has initiated many programs to improve nutrition among low-income people, said she realizes that it is a challenge. "We recognize that no one program can do it, including WIC.," she said. "To expand the reach of our efforts, we hope to create a synergy."
That's a relationship in which the collective efforts of several agents working together are greater than they could achieve working individually.
WIC officials have plans to increase the proportion of fruits and vegetables in its food programs, she said. They hope to have more salad bars in schools – with recipes to give the staff the ability to create palatable choices. She said she hopes to implement the plans by 2005.
Her division has created the Power Panther cartoon character with his own song, posters, brochures and theme – "Eat smart, play hard."
Bronner also said that it's crucial to enlist fathers in the fight against childhood obesity. While mothers make many of the food purchase and preparation decisions, she said, fathers do have an influence.
And who else? Just about everybody. "We need to get the young, the middle and the old working together so that we can have success," Bronner said. "It really does take a village to raise a child."

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