In order to keep San Antonio healthy and thriving for another 300 years, the community must address the epidemic of childhood obesity that has had a devastating impact both on the city and the state, local health leaders said Wednesday.

“Childhood obesity is preventable through community education and action,” said Linda Hook, assistant professor of nursing at the University of the Incarnate Word. “As our great city celebrates its 300th anniversary, [we aim] to address childhood obesity in an effort to raise awareness and positively impact quality of life.”

More than 50 community members gathered at Holy Spirit Hall on the city’s Eastside for a panel discussion to review the local prevalence of childhood obesity, what is being done, and what can be done to address issues, trends, and solutions.

The prevalence of obesity continues to rise in San Antonio. In 2014, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District reported that 71 percent of adults in Bexar County were overweight or obese. Of children aged 10-17 in Bexar County in 2013, 27 percent of black and Hispanic children were obese, as were 12 percent of white children, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As rates continue to increase across the state, Texas could be faced with a vastly overweight population – nearly 75 percent – by the year 2040, according to the Department of State Health Services.

Arming people with “helpful, healthful” information about how food customs, food choices, and related health issues impact future well-being is essential to improving public health and quality of life, said Hook, the panel moderator.

The Culinary Health Education for Families (CHEF) program at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio is one local initiative that teaches children and families practical nutrition and basic cooking skills with the long-term goal of motivating people to adopt and sustain healthier eating habits.

Dr. Julie La Barba, medical director of the CHEF program, said that one of the biggest contributors to poor eating habits is parents who lack skills and confidence when it comes to preparing basic meals. As ready-made food options continue to increase, cooking in the home has declined, she said.

“Anything made in the home will be better than a [prepared] option” such as fast food and packaged to-go meals, La Barba said. “Your food and fitness environment are the things that you are surrounded by,” so community organizations have to create spaces that promote health.

CHEF (Culinary Health Education for Families) Program Director Maria Palma stands for a portrait in the Children's Hospital educational kitchen that is nearly complete.
Culinary Health Education for Families Program Director Maria Palma in the Children’s Hospital educational kitchen. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The CHEF program has six teaching kitchens, 72 instructors, and more than 150 doctors trained in culinary medicine who work with families to integrate healthy eating habits into their wellness plan. La Barba said she often encounters families looking to learn basic skills such as boiling water and cooking food in an oven.

The Social Health and Research Center, a local nonprofit that studies how genetics and environment contribute to chronic disease, works to combat childhood obesity through comprehensive evaluation of local and national programs and initiatives. Dr. Roberto Treviño founded the organization in 1991 by following five years of treating underserved communities in San Antonio as a primary care physician.

Treviño said at the core of obesity for any population is the accumulation of fat cells in the body, which begin forming at gestation and continue to fluctuate intermittently throughout puberty. Fat cells act like rubber bands, he explained, stretching and returning to their natural state. But when people gain more fat cells than they lose, they alter their biological make-up.

“We need to know this because obesity is not a factory defect,” Treviño said. “We were not born with obesity genes – it is being programmed developmentally by all of us” through personal decision-making.

When a mother is pregnant and consumes junk foods, he said, the fetus will develop taste buds that prefer those flavors; if a mother drinks water and eats healthy, the fetus will  favor those flavors. For this reason, Treviño said, enhancing access to wholesome foods and educating the community on how to prepare them will be key to a healthy San Antonio community, and will work to address physical health, oral health, academic ability, and more.

“To know the solution we have to know what caused this problem we got into,” Treviño said. “We need to respect [science] and work to address that which is in our control.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.