The University of Texas Health Houston School of Public Health El Paso campus is opening an El Paso Nutrition and Healthy Weight Clinic on Thursday.
By Leah Whigham

Obesity remains a major issue facing the El Paso region. More than 75% of adults in El Paso have excess weight, and this puts them at increased risk for obesity-related diseases such as diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, hypertension, stroke, infertility and some cancers. 

Leah Whigham

Obesity takes its toll on individuals and their families, as well as the community. Obesity costs the United States an estimated $1.39 trillion each year – this includes direct medical costs and lost productivity from employees affected by obesity.

So why do obesity rates keep climbing and why aren’t we doing more to address the problem? 

The root of the problem is that obesity is often misunderstood in our society – we tend to attribute excess body weight to laziness or lack of willpower or motivation, but in fact, obesity is classified as a disease. It is the dysregulation of energy balance within the body. The body’s mechanisms for driving the food we eat and/or the calories we burn stop working. 

In other words, obesity in an individual first needs to be addressed by understanding the biological causes. Therefore, what we need is greater access to a health care system that is equipped to use the latest obesity science available to identify, and when possible, treat, the cause of the dysregulation. Going hand-in-hand with that treatment, there is also good science backing effective nutrition and behavioral strategies that need to be used in parallel with addressing the biological causes.

To that end, the Center for Community Health Impact at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health El Paso campus, has been working with health care providers and patients in the region to develop tools that will support weight loss treatment in primary care clinics. 

We have developed a training program and innovative software that guides health care providers through the treatment process. In addition, we have built a program for patients called Small Changes that allows them to design their own weight loss meal plan. The patient chooses from a variety of food options based on their taste preferences and lifestyle. The software program then provides detailed recipes and instructions to guide the patient, leading to an overall consistent calorie intake specific to that person that will result in weight loss. 

Meal options were developed based on interviews with local patients, so they include a lot of local favorites including milanesa, chilaquiles, and enchiladas, as well as local restaurant options. 

To expand the reach of this work, we are pleased to announce that the El Paso Nutrition and Healthy Weight Clinic, part of UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, will open this summer. The new clinic has been designed to increase access for patients to evidence-based weight loss treatment and train providers in medical management of obesity. 

As director of the clinic, I am pleased to work with nurse practitioner Athena Nathan to engage patients and connect them with the resources of our program and the support to achieve better health.

We are hosting an open house on Thursday, June 1 that is open to the public where people can tour the clinic, meet our team, and have free health screenings including blood pressure and body composition analysis. For more information on this event, go to

Leah Whigham is director of the Center for Community Health Impact and El Paso Nutrition and Healthy Weight Clinic for the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, El Paso campus.