Weight loss programs tailored to needs of Somali and Latino immigrants show success

Apr 21, 2022 | Kanaaz Pereira, Connect Moderator | @kanaazpereira

Somali and Latino immigrants lost weight when they worked together in culturally specific groups and received coaching from someone from their community. The Mayo Clinic’s pilot study was such a success it’s being replicated on a larger scale.

The study, published in March, looked at immigrants living in southeast Minnesota who were guided by someone from their respective ethnic groups.

The unexpected success story has prompted a larger study of how small, culturally similar groups can promote positive outcomes related to weight loss. Mayo Clinic researchers are currently recruiting participants for a new 450-person trial. They expect to launch the project in June in collaboration with the University of Minnesota and the National Institutes of Health.

“It was so successful because most people gained weight during the pandemic; these were such impressive results,” said lead author Dr. Mark Wieland, a Mayo Clinic physician who focuses his research on community-based strategies to promote health equity. “If this is successful in a more rigorous study, then we can start evidence-based intervention.”

The participants lost an average of 2 percent of their body weight over 12 weeks. Also surprising and impressive, the researchers said, is that no one dropped out despite the fact that the pandemic hit just after the 39 participants started meeting in small groups.

Luz Molina, who helped lead the Latino groups, remembered the reaction of the study’s principal investigators. “When COVID hit, they just said, ‘So should we stop here?’ ” she said. “And I was like, ‘No, no; they want to continue! They are very motivated, so we have to do something.’ ”

“One participant said, ‘I ran stairs between the first and second floors while doing laundry, and I burned 200 calories!’ ” Molina said. “And some people sent pictures of vegetables they had never seen before.”


"The Somali participants were equally enthusiastic," said Yahye Ahmed, who helped lead the Somali groups. He offered participants suggestions for safe places to walk during the early days of the pandemic when gathering outside to exercise was frowned upon. Top suggestions included the mall early in the morning when most people are asleep.

The community leaders made sure to tailor each group according to cultural norms, Yahye said.

Immigrants often arrive in Minnesota at a healthier weight than the general population, the researchers noted, but most gain weight in the first 10 years. Another study led by Wieland showed that rates of diabetes for the Somali population near Rochester are double that of non-Somali patients. Latino people are 17 percent more likely to be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes than white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You’re coming from a climate of warm weather that’s huge on organic food, freshly made,” Yahye said. “And then you come to America, and everything switches–you have processed foods, high intake of sugar, less activity. The only time you’re walking is if it’s for exercise. Back home it’s a part of life.”

Molina agreed.

“When we come to this country we change our diets and sometimes we don’t know what to eat, what is good,” she said. “On TV they are showing you those good pizzas and many burgers; if you buy this with French fries, it’s less expensive than if you buy a salad. Sometimes you can even buy two for the price of one.”

Some of the participants in the pilot study are being tapped as leaders for the new study. Wieland said the study’s model can be replicated by other groups, from nonprofits to public health departments.

“We hope we can keep on building with this success,” he said. “The goal is that the children benefit from all these things we put in place.”

Excerpted from the Sahan Journal.


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