By Lynda Lawrence / HCA Advisory Board: Nutrition
Honduras is a tropical paradise, teeming with biodiversity. Below the jagged mountains lay fields and fields of nectarous pineapples, while the trees alongside the sea are dripping with mangos. My experience working on farms allowed me to appreciate what a prime environment the humid tropics are to grow all sorts of exotic fruits. So why is it that in such a fertile land, the children of Honduras have high rates of growth stunting from nutrient deprivation? More shockingly, how could undernourishment be associated with rapidly increasing rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes in adults? Ultimately, it comes down to the thing that has wreaked havoc in health across the world, processed food.
You may have the image that most Central Americans work on farms and live off rice, beans, and tortillas. While rice and beans are a diet staple, a lot of people regularly eat fried plantains, corn tortillas, eggs, and occasional meat from their own chickens. In El Porvenir, fish is an option at times as well, yet a typical diet consists of lots of grains and fried foods and very few vegetables. While a local store may have some carrots, onions, green peppers, and avocado, it is not reliable that they will always be in stock and they tend to be pricey. If you don’t live in a city it is almost impossible to have access to greens or a larger variety of vegetables.
You will find, however, that even in the most rural of towns there are ‘pulperias’, small bodega like stores that have Pepsi or Coca Cola painted on the outside.
In a town, finding a good vegetable is unreliable but pulperias are always stocked full of processed snacks. You will find extremely cheap chips and cookies, and candies hanging or in little jars, plus Coke, Pepsi, Fanta, orange juice, and bagged milk.
Processed foods add spice and novelty to the everyday tortilla, beans, and rice and are readily available at cheap prices. I was not shocked to know that sales have gone up by $75.1 million dollars between 2012-2016, a 15% increase.
Traditionally, most Hondurans were ‘campesinos’ (farmers), and most families grew their food and sold the excess. They would move and work all day, eating as much as they had available to stay full. Undernourishment was probably still a problem but they would burn off the excess calories and fat, preventing obesity. As cities grow, the communities on the outskirts are caught in the middle of not having access to healthy foods, but also not having land to work on and eat from. High calorie and high-fat processed foods combined with less movement is an unfortunate recipe for weight gain and health risks. In the past, low socioeconomic status was associated with malnutrition, now it is more prevalent that malnutrition and obesity come hand in hand.
The orange juice averages 30g of sugar, about 7.5 teaspoons.
As a diabetes health coach in New York City, I can only imagine how this obesity epidemic has led a good percentage of the Honduran population to live with heart disease and type 2 diabetes, likely undiagnosed. Diabetes and heart disease are ‘silent killers’ because they generally do not carry symptoms until it is too late. In a more developed country, diabetes and high blood pressure will be diagnosed during routine doctor visits and can be managed by a change of diet and walk to the local pharmacy to pick up some supplies. Hondurans don’t have access to this kind of healthcare. It is also very hard to change food habits, especially if fresh foods are scarce.
This deeply tangled dilemma is made more difficult by extreme poverty, but we do have the option of education and exposure. Education is empowerment, and nutritionally it begins when the children develop a consciousness and appreciation of fresh foods. They don’t have access to kale and spinach but they can make the choice to save their money and health by not buying processed foods.
As we model locally available healthy food choices, this is our aim with the Healthy Snacks Program. Yes, we provide a multivitamin and protein-filled snack to combat undernourishment, but it’s also about educating young people to be able to make the best decisions within their power. Our plans for 2019 are to make this education more integrative with the beautiful environment they have. Getting the kids back into the land, working with plants, trying new foods, appreciating, and hopefully eating the fresh foods this tropical paradise can so easily produce.