WASHINGTON – Natalie Alhonte attended a briefing about a new report on childhood obesity as part of her job. By the time the briefing ended,she was so inspired by what she had heard that she rose to tell about her own fight against fat.
After arriving in the United States as young Brazilian immigrant,she soon found herself in a struggle to gain control over her weight.
“As an immigrant,you have to adjust to the culture,” said Alhonte,23. “Your body is not used to the food. In Latin America,there is only access to healthy food and vegetables,it's not like you have gummy worms or anything. It was a huge shock to my body.”
By third grade,Alhonte said her weight had jumped to 135 pounds. She developed asthma. While visiting relatives in Colombia,she discovered she could not keep up with her active cousins because of her mounting health problems.
Going to college only amplified her childhood problem,she said. While attending American University in Washington,Alhonte reached 265 pounds. Then she made the commitment to restructure her diet.
“I decided to go back to the basics,” she said. “I examined what my genetics were,what kinds of foods people from my country ate – more fresh vegetables,more brown rice. … Then I was just able to take it off.”
Nowadays,Alhonte looks trim at 180 pounds. She works for Patri Inc.,a Brazilian government relations firm.
The report by the National Institute of Medicine underscores the approach she has taken to win her fight with obesity.
“I'm glad they're doing this kind of work,” she said. “They've really put their hearts into this,coming up with innovative solutions to invest in the community. They've really taken time to address the specific needs of the community.”
Not everyone has Alhonte's insight. The sluggish response of the general community sparks further cause for alarm,said Jeffrey Koplan,the IOM committee chair.
“We're saying this is something there should be outrage over,” he said. “If you had a vaccine that worked,and you put it on the shelf and said,‘Well,that's nice,now let's go on to something else,' people wouldn't stand for it. But because this is a longer-range problem,it doesn't seem to have the same urgency for some people.”
Most of the American public views obesity as a personal issue,Alhonte said. Yet obesity should be seen as a disease caused by the country's food culture.
“People don't realize it's a systematic problem,” she said. “When you're already obese at age 10,obviously there are societal complications. And as a child,you're stigmatized,as if it were all your fault. But we all have a responsibility to find a solution.”