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Pathways to Discovery: Fall 2011

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Obesity Problem Grows in Chicago's Asian Community

Our finding is that Asians in Chicago don’t think obesity is a problem.
Karen E. Kim, MD, MS

UChicago cancer researchers have spotted a troubling health trend in Chicago’s Asian community, and they are taking steps to counteract it. New research shows nearly one out of every two Asians in Chicago is either obese or overweight. Over time, obesity can lead to diabetes, heart disease and stroke, and is a risk factor for cancer.

“Asian Americans are the only group to have cancer as the #1 cause of death,” explained Karen E. Kim, MD, MS, associate professor of medicine and director of the UCCCC Office of Community Engagement and Cancer Disparities (OCECD). “Losing weight and quitting smoking can reduce your risk for cancer. I want to help people make behavioral changes so they can live healthier lives.”

Changing Perceptions
The OCECD is working with the Asian Health Coalition to try to understand the cultural and geographical reasons behind this growing weight problem. One reason, they found, is that food deserts exist in Chinatown. There is minimal access to stores that sell affordable fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. Food deserts are also common in many South Side communities where obesity rates, especially among black women, are higher than in any other racial or ethnic group in
the nation.

The belief among Asians that weight correlates with wealth and status is also contributing to the growing obesity problem. “The cultural perception is that if you are overweight, you are well-fed, successful and healthy,” said Dr. Kim. “Our job is to open a dialog with the community, get them to start thinking about the consequences of obesity, and then motivate them to make changes. First, they
have to believe that there is a problem. Right now, our finding is that Asians in Chicago don’t think obesity is a problem.”

Obesity Rates in Illinois
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a state-by-state list of obesity prevalence in the United States. Illinois ranked #34 with an obesity rate of 28.2%. Colorado had the lowest obesity rate (21.0%) while Mississippi had the highest rate (34.0%). Although Cook County had an overall obesity rate (24.9%) that was lower than the state average, Dr. Kim and her research collaborators will publish data in the near future showing that the obesity rate among Asians in Chinatown is significantly higher than the reported average, and that the obesity rate among Asian youth is the fastest growing rate of any group in the nation.

“If you look at junk food consumption, Asians are some of the highest consumers because junk food is expensive and it shows that you’ve acculturated yourself,” said Dr. Kim.

The OCECD will use a grant from the National Institutes of Health to help create awareness about obesity and to create a strategic plan that aims to reduce body mass index (BMI) in Asians in Chicago within the next 2 years. BMI is a measure of fat based on height, weight, and body frame. Part of the process will include identifying specific strengths and challenges within a community, so that those areas can be addressed. In addition to the Asian Health Coalition, the OCECD will work with the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC) and other community outreach groups at The University of Chicago.

Karen Kim cancer obesity Asians

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