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Using data to tackle obesity

As National Diabetes Awareness Month comes to a close, we cannot overlook the importance of such awareness for Asian Americans in Albuquerque. Often labeled a “model minority,” people mistakenly believe Asian Americans are all well off and immune from common health conditions, especially those generally associated with obesity. However, Asian Americans are not exceptions to serious health consequences commonly associated with being overweight, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. This too often goes unnoticed because they are an invisible and inaccurately described population.
This is reflected in almost all data about Asian Americans. In the most recent report on racial and ethnic health disparities for New Mexico, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are grouped together and are almost always followed with ‘not enough data’. Because of this, New Mexico Asian Family Center (NMAFC), a non-profit based in Albuquerque and the sole organization in the state tailoring services to the Asian community, relies on national data. This, too, can be problematic and there is a critical need to support efforts to collect actual local and state level data for AAPIs.
For the first time ever, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) included Asian Americans in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. However, the data reports “Asian Americans” as a single population, when in reality they comprise over 50 different ethnic groups, all with varying health status. Because of this, the survey’s conclusion that Asian Americans were less likely to be obese or overweight compared to other groups is both misleading and inaccurate.
In states with sizable AAPI concentrations, obesity rates among Pacific Islander, Filipino, Vietnamese, and South Asian Americans rival the alarming figures seen in many minority communities. Lifestyle factors such as physical activity and weight control are key behavioral factors to consider in efforts to reduce and eliminate obesity. Here in New Mexico, Asian American and Pacific Islander adolescents ranked at the bottom when it came to getting the recommended minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days of the week.
Considering the role a healthy lifestyle, particularly physical activity, can have on obesity by maintaining weight and preventing serious conditions like diabetes, this is alarming for AAPI adolescents and a cause for action. NMAFC responded to this with a $110,000 grant through the CDC’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) efforts, and worked with Asian American leaders to revitalize walking trails within the International District to promote the convenience of walking where people live, work, and play.
Now, a map of these walking trails has become a permanent fixture at Talin Market, one of the main international grocery stores in Albuquerque. The result makes staying active easier and, coupled with community education, has improved knowledge about the role of physical activity in preventing conditions like diabetes to over 14,000 Asian Americans in Albuquerque, particularly Asian American adolescents.
This example just underscores how data can drive community responses, funding and action and why it is so important that health data paint an accurate picture of communities. Many states that have limited data on AAPIs continue to depend on national data to document their community’s needs. With improvements in how this data gets reported and delineated, the CDC’s inclusion of Asian Americans can help inform public health efforts that will benefit all American communities for years to come.
Kay Bounkeua is the Director of Programs for the New Mexico Asian Family Center. She received her Master of Public Health Degree from the University of Michigan, School of Public Health and has worked within communities in Michigan, Mississippi, and New Mexico.