Obesity Rising In Los Angeles County

Photo | Reut R. Cohen

More than half of the adult population is overweight or obese in Los Angeles County. Statistics show that low-income areas in Los Angeles are at higher risk for preventable diseases linked to obesity, including, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and even cancer.

Experts say that poorer communities around Los Angeles have less access to healthy foods.

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"Being able to have access to healthy foods is very compromised in these communities," said Karen Lincoln, associate director of the USC Roybal Institute. "If people want to eat healthier they have to have access to healthy foods."

Lincoln notes that health disparities exist in various groups, with African-Americans and Hispanics at a higher risk of diseases linked to poor nutrition habits.

"There's a saying if you know someone's zip code, you know their health," said Lincoln. "It's very clear when you look at Los Angeles County."

In 2007 the Department of Public Health and the American Diabetes Association of Los Angeles found that 22% of residents suffer from obesity--up from 14.3% in 1997.

The epidemic of childhood obesity is also growing, which means that health care providers will be dealing with more chronic, debilitating diseases in the future.

"Recess is being cut down and opportunities for physical activity is being cut down," said Lincoln. "I think we're seeing the ramifications of that in our children."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overweight and obese individuals "have a significant economic impact on the U.S. health care system." Health costs related to obesity were estimated at $147 billion in 2008, according to a study published in Health Affairs.

"We know that if there are healthier food options available, obesity goes down," Lincoln said. South Los Angeles, which critics have defined as a "food desert," got its first healthy grocery store, a "Fresh and Easy," in February only after an advocacy campaign.

Officials have attempted to intervene to promote better nutrition, but healthy food habits have to be learned. Access to better food doesn't always denote better health. Consider, for instance, that low-income individuals who receive food stamps are more likely to be overweight than those who do not receive food stamps. While there are several causes for obesity and the food stamp program is hardly to blame, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services is consistently aiming to find new ways to promote healthy food purchases.

"Enhanced efforts [are] needed to address the obesity epidemic among [Food Stamp Program] participants and low-income non-participants, especially among households with children," a report from the county's Department of Health Services notes.

It goes back to education within Los Angeles' various cultures and communities.

"There is knowledge that we need healthy foods," said Lincoln. "But there's a push and there's a pull."

Reut R. Cohen is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which has partnered with KCET-TV to produce this blog about policy in Los Angeles.

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