The only thing I envy in people is the ability to eat what they want and not get fat. I grew up in a family in which being overweight was a mortal sin—the legacy of my grandmother Ana Linda, who used the Roman tradition of purging as a way of maintaining her curvaceous figure. This resulted in many bulimics among the grandchildren and an unnatural dissatisfaction with our body image.

I was never fat-fat, but I was chubby when growing up. I still remember my mother threatening to buy me Chubette—a Sears brand of elasticized clothes that made you look like a chorizo or tamal depending on your body type—if I gained one more pound. At first, I thought this obsession was limited to our branch of the family. So I was heartbroken recently to hear my cousin’s daughter tell me that her father had told her that she looked fat in her wedding dress.

Fortunately and unfortunately, that is not the case with most immigrants. Fortunately, because people tend to say “asi es” (that’s the way he/she is), so they grow up with a better self image. Unfortunately, because for a long time people thought that there was little they could do to control their weight because they simply were the way they were meant to be.

Once a upon a time, before processed foods and soft drinks, when people ate our traditional diet of beans, corn, chile, fruit and other vegetables and worked in the fields, Mexicans tended to be thin. Our bodies became efficient at using every calorie. But this wreaked havoc once consumers started living on highly-caloric fast foods and beverages.

Outreach efforts by health organizations of all kinds (including Mexican consulates alarmed at the rising cost of cases of diabetes, hypertension, cancer among our people) are at least starting to raise awareness that something must and can be done.

The trouble is that people don’t know what they can or cannot eat.

Last week, a woman with a visible limp followed me, moving slowly, out of the Mexican Consulate. As we walked to the bus, she volunteered that she had gained a lot of weight recently and that it was affecting her feet, so walking was painful. She then said, “I know I need to get on a diet, but I tried one of those weight-off supplements and immediately gained the weight back when I started eating again.”

“What can I do,” she asked. “What diet works best?”

Having been a medical social worker for several years in El Paso, Texas, I explained that diets don’t work long-term, but she could start by eliminating anything white, except maybe cauliflower and jicama, from her diet. She almost cried at the simplicity.

The secret is to change your way of eating and, most importantly, to exercise. Believe me, I know. I’ve fought the battle of the bulge forever and right now I am winning and I feel pretty good about myself!

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