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Addressing Systemic Racism in Nutrition

“Racism is a public health emergency of global concern. It is the root cause of continued disparities in death and disease between Black and white people in the USA." - The Lancet

Racial Disparities in Diet-Related Conditions

Diet-related diseases--such as diabetes, obesity, stroke, heart disease, and cancer-- disproportionately impact communities of color. Black populations have higher rates of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and obesity compared to White populations. Type 2 diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases among Native American and Latinx populations. Furthermore, people of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 as a result of these chronic conditions, and have an elevated risk of COVID-related severe illness, hospitalization, and mortality. Native Americans, Black, and Latinx populations have a hospitalization rate four times higher than White Americans. It is clear that these underlying diet-related conditions are putting these communities at greater risk.

On top of this, lower wages and insufficient insurance coverage greatly limits access to quality healthcare for these communities. One highly effective approach to address health and socioeconomic disparities in America would be to close the ethnic and racial gap through improvements in health. Greater investment in chronic disease prevention, such as through healthy diet and exercise promotion, is needed moving forward as chronic disease rates continue to increase in the USA.

Dietary Guidelines and Racial Inclusivity

Last week, we posted our response to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) 2020-2025 new release, highlighting the differences in nutritional guidelines and the complete omission of food sustainability. We would also like to recognize that these guidelines may not be entirely representative of the nation’s growing diversity. Given the fact that the DGA shapes federal nutrition and food assistance programs--programs that heavily serve communities of color--it’s important that these guidelines are culturally relevant to all racial and ethnic groups that reside in America. This new version of the DGA does not offer tailored approaches for people who are already struggling with chronic disease. Around 60% of the American population is diagnosed with one or more diet-related chronic conditions, and as mentioned, people of color are disproportionately affected. Future federal messaging should evolve to address the systemic impacts of racism on nutrition, including food insecurity, food access, and chronic disease implications.

One example of differences in food and racial groups is the case for dairy. Historically, the DGA has been an advocate for dairy consumption for improved health. Lactose intolerance is common among many Americans, especially in Asian American, Native American, and Black populations. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, composed of more than 12,000 doctor members, submitted a letter to the USDA stating,“The loss of lactase enzymes after early childhood is the biological norm. Only among whites is lactase persistence common. The National Institutes of Health estimates 95 percent of Asians Americans, 60-80 percent of African Americans and Ashkenazi Jews, 80-100 percent of Native Americans, and 50-80 percent of Hispanics are lactose intolerant.” For the first time ever, the DGA acknowledged that lactose intolerance is a pervasive health issue and included soy milk as an alternative to dairy! These types of wins are HUGE and hopefully future iterations can continue to acknowledge dietary differences amongst different racial and ethnic groups in America.

Addressing Health Disparities

Not only do nutritional changes need to be made across America but are especially important in communities that are most affected by diet-related conditions. In order to address structural racism in nutrition, policy changes and public health practices that ensure greater access to healthful foods and improve nutrition education on these matters are essential. All this being said, a huge bulk of KIN’s nutrition programming is carried out in lower-income schools in Santa Barbara and Goleta. Since the majority of these kids are from Latinx, Spanish-speaking communities, we have translated most of our English education materials to Spanish for both the students and their parents. We have also provided online resources to achieve health goals in an accessible and affordable way. Our plans for the future are to reach as many underserved communities as we can and expand our program to include a food access component through partnerships with local food banks.

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