Food speaks volumes about health in Boyle Heights

By Kylie Morgan

According to new FDA regulations, a national standard for posting calorie information will come into full effect two years from now, according to the Los Angeles Times. Chain restaurants, entertainment venues and vending machines will all post calorie information. However, these regulations only apply to chains with 20 or more locations that offer the same food options, according to the Los Angeles Times. In places like Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, the impact of these laws only extends so far.

In the largely Latino Boyle Heights community, food options are specifically geared toward a Latino diet. Although there are some fast food options in the area such as Subway and McDonalds that require calorie information on their menus, many restaurants are small businesses whose customers do not care about their food's nutritional data. However, the absence of calorie counts is merely a side effect of the stress level, culture, and education level within the community.

More than 60 percent of households in Boyle Heights are low-income and 15 percent of residents are unemployed. Camille Dieterle, University of Southern California Assistant Professor of Clinical Occupational Therapy, said people of lower socioeconomic status suffer from higher stress levels and more daily hassle, which pushes people to eating foods with more sugar or fat.

"[Sugar, fat, and salt] tap into our dopamine reward system, which is like drugs," said Dieterle. "They make you feel good. You get a little hit of pleasure."

Posting nutritional information can also be expensive, especially for small businesses, because it requires restaurants to hire a dietician, stated Dieterle. Studies have shown that only half of people in lower income communities actually notice calorie information, said Dieterle.

"Typically, the more educated someone is, the more that this nutritional information would affect the choice," said Dieterle.

Roger Clemens, Adjunct Professor at the USC School of Pharmacy, said education is crucial to making nutritional information a useful tool in fighting health issues like obesity. Nutrition labels are supposed to create informed consumers who make healthier food choices, but Clemens said there is a gap between providing information and understanding it.

"Not everyone understands those labels and not everyone, if they did understand them, can figure out what to do with them," said Clemens.

Clemens' experience in grammar schools in low-income areas around USC revealed that neither children nor teachers understood concepts like sanitation, energy, or the meaning of a calorie.

"Many people within certain regions of the population don't see any value in making changes to their diets to provide better health," said Clemens. "They have different priorities."

In Boyle Heights, more than 30 percent of adults are obese or overweight and 50 percent of teenagers suffer from being overweight and obese, according to a Building Healthy Communities health profile. Boyle Heights resident Rosa, who would not give her last name, said tradition plays a large role in people's reluctance to change their diets.

"It's more of what we're used to eating, what our parents were cooking, what my mom was cooking,” said Rosa. “I remember her using a lot of butter in a lot of food in her cooking, and oil; we would go through bottles of oil really fast."

Rosa said it's hard to make a diet change unless you become sick. Rosa's cholesterol problems and her parents' diabetes forced her to make healthy changes like using less oil and eating more fish, according to Rosa.

A small market along Whittier Boulevard called El Mercado Mexico illustrates the area’s deep-rooted relationship to Latino cuisine. For example, the produce section offered many different kinds of chiles. The store also had a butcher station displaying a long row of red meat options that far outnumbered choices from the small fish section. The butcher Isibro Torres listed ground beef and neck bone as popular items and said people do not often buy fish.

Companionship and accountability are important when people are trying to change their diets, according to Clemens. Accountability can be hard in a neighborhood like Boyle Heights where the same fried and oily foods are in almost every restaurant. Clemens said educating young people--who can then educate their parents--will be the key to helping people understand what they eat.