It took some time for Juana Mena to realize how much weight she had gained over the last few years.
“Suddenly one day I looked in the mirror and said to myself: ‘I’ve just gotten too fat.’ But when I started trying to lose the extra weight, I just couldn’t,” says Mena, a resident in the Ramona Gardens Housing Development in Lancaster Avenue.
The 42-year-old mother of one says her love for food and a lack of nutritional education are to blame for the 332 pounds she carries on her small 5 foot 3 inches frame.
But she is not alone, just like Mena, many tenants in Ramona Gardens face problems with overweight and obesity, according to a recent report about common health conditions in the Boyle Heights neighborhood.
Results of the Ramona Gardens Health & Housing Survey indicate that over three quarters of its residents are overweight and nearly half are obese. Based on self-reported height and weight, the percentage of adults that live in the housing complex who are overweight is 74%, compared to 37% in Los Angeles County and 35% in the country.
About 49% said they were obese, compared to 24% in L.A. and 28% overall.
“These are enormous numbers and enough reason to worry,” says Breck Nichols, residency program director at LAC+USC Medical Center who participated in the study.
Nichols explained that the survey relied on respondents to report their weight and height and used these data to estimate body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat that applies to adult men and women.
The majority of studies have found that during self-reports, people tend to underestimate their weight and overestimate their height, resulting in lower estimates of the prevalence of obesity, compared with estimates based on measured data.
“Self-reported weight tends to be less reliable, and still with that error we ended up with 74% overweight,” he added.
While overweight and obesity are so frequent among its residents, Ramona Gardens is a low income neighborhood. Survey results indicate that 51% of households in the area have an income of $10,000 or less a year. Only 3% reported an income of over $30,000 a year.
Due to the additional risk factors associated with poverty, low-income people are especially vulnerable to obesity in part because, with hardly any access to low-cost healthy food, they face unique challenges in adopting healthful behaviors.
“Most likely the cheaper food they have access to is the less healthy one,” Nichols said. “When they have a low budget people have to rely on things like soda, and fast food.”
Nichols said he hopes there is a change of direction in policies towards communities like Ramona Gardens, “to make healthy options more attractive and less healthy less attractive.”
Meanwhile, Mena complains that lack of resources and accessibility to a good food market stand in the way of her achieving her goal of losing the extra pounds.
“I’m seeing a nutritionist, I have to eat more healthy, more fiber, less fat, less carbohydrate, walk some more, avoid stress. But there isn’t a supermarket close by. The closest grocery store everything is so expensive there, so where do I buy the fresh fruits and vegetables?” she adds.
The Ramona Gardens Health & Housing Survey also found that 16% reported suffering from depression. The number is significantly higher than Los Angeles County depression rate which is 8.3%. About 9% of American adults suffer from some form of depression.
Nichols considered this higher than average numbers of depression to be related to economic and social factors.
“I think there’s no surprise that people making less than $30,000 in Los Angeles are distressed,” he added.
The Ramona Gardens Health & Housing Survey report was prepared by Madeline Wander for Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) and the Ramona Gardens Health Subcommittee.