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Analyzing The Causes Of Obesity In The Romani Ethnic Group

February 14, 2012

Esther Rebato is a well-known figure in the field of Physical Anthropology. She not only holds the prestigious Alex Hrdlièka academic medal of the Czech Republic, but she is also the Chair of the Spanish Association of Physical Anthropology. This lecturer at the Department of Genetics, Physical Anthropology and Animal Physiology of the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) has carried out numerous pieces of work into nutritional habits, life quality and other associated aspects. Over the last few years she has been looking at the Romani ethnic population; it is a group that suffers from a high rate of obesity and which has caught this researcher’s attention. In actual fact, she has been working with them in several projects, and in particular, the one entitled Determinantes genéticos y ambientales de la obesidad en familias de etnia gitana de la CAV (Genetic and Environmental Determinants of Obesity in Families of the Romani Ethnic Group in the Basque Autonomous Community), funded by the former Ministry of Science and Innovation.

The project got going last year and is set to take three years (2011-2013). Rebato is the only lecturer from the UPV/EHU involved, but she has the collaboration of various PhD students and Doctor Fernando Goñi Goicoechea, endocrinologist and consultant at the Hospital of Basurto (Bilbao). And also of the Romani association Kale Dor Kayiko, which has so far put her in touch with over 50 Romani families and more than 380 individuals. Among other things, they have been asked to take part in socio-economic and image-perception surveys; and they have had their anthropometric measurements, blood pressure and saliva samples taken. “We do not study the metrics or phenotype alone; we also analyse some genes. These are confirmatory studies, we are not out to discover new genes. The only thing we want to see here is whether there is any particular variant in the Romani population,” adds Rebato.

Research and information

This piece of work has only just begun, but some data are illuminating: “Obesity is extremely prevalent. If the rate in the general population is 15-20 %, in the Romani population it exceeds 50 %; in men as well as in women. What is more, it is central or abdominal obesity. In men, in particular, it is very dangerous because it is a type of obesity linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc.”

Rebato argues that there is a “culture of obesity” that accounts for this phenomenon: “When the populations that have not had much power access food, power is displayed in more potbellied, chubbier children“¦ Furthermore, there is a conception that men like well-built women; this seems to be a fertility symbol. The Romani families have gained access to an obesogenic culture and consume cheaper foods with a higher fat content…” All this has serious consequences. Without looking any further, some of the children of Romani families participating in the study are already hypertensive, and the state of many women points to possible diabetes or heart problems after the menopause. To this has to be added the risks involved, mainly in the men, which is the abdominal type of obesity already mentioned.

In fact, Rebato and her colleagues are not limiting themselves to just doing research. As agreed with Kale Dor Kayiko, they have also undertaken to inform the families involved in the study; to warn them about the bad habits they may have and propose some changes. “We don´t want to take away their culinary culture, but, for example, we tell them to cook with less fat, to walk a little more“¦ They need to be informed so that they know how to use foodstuffs and so that they can modify their way of life without losing their essential features. And naturally, you have to explain to them that there are health inequalities. We want to inform them about what is available and then let them decide what to do,” explains the researcher.

This project still has a long way to go, but it has already begun to bear fruit in academic terms. For example, last year Rebato and her colleagues participated in the Conference of the European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics (EurSafe) held in Bilbao, with a paper on obesity in ethnic minorities and in populations with a limited income. They have also sent an article, which is currently at the revision stage, to the journal Annals of Human Biology.  

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