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For three years, America Mizes could barely walk around the block without her feet starting to go numb. She weighed 304 pounds and had many of the health problems that go along with obesity: type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and rheumatoid arthritis.
“I tried to exercise but I often couldn’t even finish a short walk,” said the Corpus Christie, Texas resident. “My weight was too much for my feet and I would have to call my husband to come get me.”
One day she saw a commercial on television for gastric bypass surgery and she decided that whatever risks the procedure might have, they couldn’t be worse than the health problems she was already dealing with.
These days Mizes, who now weighs 139 pounds, has no problem standing on her feet for an hour-long Zumba class. In fact, she teaches the class.
“Now I can walk and run and jump," she said of the surgery. "It’s a beautiful thing.”
As the fastest growing minority group in the United States and with an obesity rate 21 percent higher than whites, Latinos may soon be the biggest consumers of bariatric surgery, a catchall term for stomach-reducing procedures like gastric bypass — especially since more and more insurance policies have started covering such procedures.
“We think the increased coverage is an acknowledgement of the scientific basis of how this surgery can improve a patient’s overall health,” said Dr. Robin Blackstone, president of the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery. “For instance, a recent paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows a remarkable decrease in heart attacks among bariatric surgery patients over a 20 year time period.”
Patients who undergo bariatric surgery lose weight in part because they feel full after eating much smaller portions than they used to.
“I used to eat six or eight tacos at a time,” said Cristina Garza, who had gastric bypass surgery two years ago. “Now I eat one or one and a half tacos and I’m super full.”
Blackstone said the procedure also resets the way the brain interacts with hormones in the gut that contribute to things like taste. “One benefit is you start liking things that are actually good for you,” she said.
According to the CDC, three reasons may account for the differences in obesity rates between Hispanics and whites. Hispanics are less likely to engage in non-occupational physical activity than whites. They have less access to healthy food and safe places to work out, and, especially among women, are more self-accepting about being overweight.
That self-acceptance, Blackstone said, may be a good thing psychologically but not physically.
“That self-acceptance, the idea that being obese doesn’t change who you as a person, is a great thing,” she said. “On the other the other hand, it often means there’s no pressure for change. And that’s really needed right now in the Latino community. Latino leaders need to help their community understand that being a big person is really unhealthy.”
Mizes and Garza agree. “My family is all Latino,” said Garza, who weighed 295 pound before her surgery and now weights 151. “When you go to someone’s house the first thing they do is offer you food. We’re always eating or cooking.”
The 37-year-old Brownsville, Texas resident had a number of health issues including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sleep apnea.
“Before I used to wake up in the morning super tired as if I didn’t sleep all night,” she said. “I went to sleep at 9 p.m. and I was still sleepy when I woke up. Now I wake up 6:15 a.m. and I’m not tired or anything.”
But it is not just the Latino passion for food that is the problem, according to Mizes, who says the Latino belief that women exist to nurture their husbands and children also contributes
“We get caught up in being a wife, a friend, a mother, a sister,” she said. “We never put ourselves first.”
But in order for a bariatric patient to be successful, she said, they need to make time for their own health. After her surgery, Mizes exercised for one hour everyday for a year. Her husband was resistant at first, she said, but now he supports her working out and has even started exercising himself.
Both she and Garza had health insurance that covered the majority of the cost of their surgeries. Blackstone said an increasing number of private companies and state governments are covering the procedures.
And she said the health insurance exchanges that will go into place with President Obama’s new health care plan will make it easier for service industry employers and small business owners — who employ many Latino workers — to cover the surgery.
She predicts a domino effect as more and more Latinos have the surgery and tell their friends about it. Indeed, Garza, an administrative assistant at Brownville University said she inspired two other secretaries and one faculty member to get the surgery. Her husband also recently had a procedure called the gastric sleeve. “He’s already lost 60 pounds in two and a half months,” Garza said.
Nancy Averett is a freelancer based in Ohio.