McALLEN — Once again, McAllen has found itself on an unenviable pinnacle. According to a study from WalletHub.com, McAllen is at the top of a list of the fattest cities in America.
The study ranked McAllen, along with Edinburg and Mission, as the fattest city in the nation based on three main categories: the amount of obese and overweight people, the amount of weight-related health problems, and the amount of people who eat healthy and exercise.
That ranking is not, however, a statistic that officials from the city and McAllen ISD are accepting without a healthy dose of skepticism.
McAllen ISD Child Nutrition Director Alexandra Molina says she heard about the ranking after it was published last week.
“Our community info folks sent it to us with a sad face that McAllen was number one for the third straight year,” she said.
According to Molina, the way the study was conducted skews the results out of McAllen’s favor and renders results from recent health and nutrition initiatives moot.
“It’s trying to be alarmist. The purpose of it is to try to identify the worst of the worst and the best of the best, it’s not really looking at the middle,” she said. “I don’t like that we’re number one because of skewing of data.”
Part of the problem, Molina said, is where the study gets its data and the number of hospitals in McAllen.
“Where a lot of these studies are getting their data is simply looking at medical records,” she said. “McAllen is a hub for health care. If you look at the Valley in general, a lot of people come to McAllen for health care, so if you are a stroke patient, if you’ve had a heart attack, chances are an ambulance is going to take you to a hospital in McAllen.”
Molina also said the study put a heavy weight on two areas that are hard to change quickly: obesity levels and comorbidity levels.
“Obese adults, it’s going to take them several years to even become overweight adults,” she said. “And then once you have a comorbidity disease, which was the highest rated indicator, you don’t get rid of that. Once you are a Type 2 diabetic, it is highly probable that you’re going to continue being a Type 2 diabetic, and so that’s why year after year you don’t see this needle changing.”
Xochitl Mora, the city of McAllen’s spokesperson, says that the city has been trying to figure out how to get itself out of the first slot in the rankings since the inaugural article three years ago. Mora said the city disagrees with the study and how it was put together.
“We once again disagree with the survey, with the results, and especially the metrics that they use. They’re not looking at all the factors,” she said.
Mora said the city has taken many steps toward addressing issues that would be assessed in the category examining the amount of people who eat healthy and exercise.
“We have over 85 parks, I’m not sure how many miles of trails, hike and bike and walking trails. Several of our city parks have exercise equipment so that it’s available for free for the public,” she said. “That’s aside from the McAllen Marathon, the Arbor Day Bike Run and Walk event that just happened this weekend.”
One example of the city’s efforts to get the populace in shape was last week’s Mayor’s Wellness Councils “Walk with the Mayor,” Mora said, part of a program where citizens stroll with their elected officials that Mora says the city hopes to make a monthly occurrence.
“They’re low impact and they’re free. You can come with the whole family and be a part of it. Bring your dog, bring your bike, babies in strollers. We’ve done it so far on hike and bike trails, we’ve hosted three of them, and then we had commissioners host their own two weeks ago,” she said.
Mora said that those initiatives should affect McAllen’s ranking, especially in the category examining the amount of people who eat healthy and exercise.
“Certainly we’ve moved the metric on one of those, or at least we have something to point to to say their survey is obviously incorrect,” she said. “Obviously they’re not looking for all the factors.”
A SILVER LINING
According to Molina, the nutrition director for McAllen ISD, the statistics used by the study show that those health initiatives in the community might be having more of an impact than the ranking would suggest.
“In the 5- to 9-year-olds, which really are your elementary students … there is a substantial and significant difference in both obesity and overweight,” she said.
Molina said there were also less significant decreases in those rankings for 10- to 17-year-olds. Those statistics, Molina added, show that nutrition efforts in the community are likely having an impact, and that the lower numbers of obesity in McAllen’s youth is incredibly important for the city’s future; especially if it doesn’t want to remain at the top of WalletHub’s list.
“I think it’s critically important, because it’s introducing kids to foods that they may never have had at home, so what we’ve found is they’re helping educate their parents, so when parents go to a grocery store kids will self-select some fresh apples or oranges or bananas because they see them every single day on the line,” Molina said. “If you look at trying to change eating habits, it’s really hard in adults. While we don’t control all that kids eat, obviously, we do have closed campuses and child nutrition programs where a lot of their nutrition comes.”
According to Molina, in addition to giving its students healthy food options, the district has a few policies in place in order to keep its students in shape.
“We spend a lot of time on water consumption, we’ve put filtered water stations in all of our cafeterias and really encourage water consumption, because a lot of our kids are dehydrated all day long and they just don’t know it and they think they’re hungry,” she said. “It happens even in adults, we think we’re hungry but we’re actually thirsty.”
Molina says that unstructured physical activity is also encouraged.
“We have P.E. Federal law, state law requires physical activity through P.E., but also making sure that elementary and middle school kids also have unstructured recess, where they learn social and emotional skills but they also learn to run and play and throw a ball and jump rope, and understand that being active is important,” she said.
Molina says that teaching its students how to stay healthy is not the only piece of the puzzle: the district also has to convince those students to stay in the area after graduation.
“If your 10- to 17-year-olds stay in the Valley, are able to find gainful employment in the Valley, are able to maintain healthy eating habits in the Valley, then you’ll see that change,” she said. “If these 10- to 17-year-olds go away to school and do not return to the Valley, then it will take longer to see this change. If they’re healthy but they leave, it doesn’t change the number.”
Molina said that keeping those educated eaters in McAllen could finally boot McAllen from the top of WalletHub’s list, but it could take a while.
“We have a problem, but we’re seeing gains in the group that can make the biggest change,” she said. “Next year I would guess that we’re still going to be number one, because we need some of these folks to graduate and stay. But I do see a lot of the efforts that are happening, and I think that you can turn this around.”