The idea of going back to Washington Heights – the neighborhood that meant so much to me as a child – was especially exciting as I would be giving my first DASH diet workshop of 2017 just blocks from the apartment where my Aunt Pat instilled in me a lifelong love of healthy eating and exercise.
I spent every summer of my youth in “the Heights,” where my favorite aunt lived. My parents would fly me from Puerto Rico to visit Aunt Pat as part of a yearly ritual to get me to exercise and lose weight. After all, Aunt Pat cooked and lived a healthy life. Her kitchen was always full of fruits and vegetables that she would serve with every meal. She cooked only lean meats and poultry, and every dish was portion controlled (despite my protests). Though I resisted, she taught me to love fish and broccoli, and to enjoy non-fat plain yogurt with fruit instead of ice cream. We would walk every day, five miles at least. Looking back, Aunt Pat taught me my first lessons on healthy eating and the benefits of exercise.
And here I was, in an elementary school in the old hood, ready to share with a group of Latino parents all that good stuff that I had learned from her so many decades ago.
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The workshop, “Eating Tips to Manage Diabetes,” drew a crowd of more than 70 men and women concerned about the sugar and carbohydrates in their kids’ diets. As I waited in the dining hall for the program to begin, I couldn’t help but notice the children as they passed by to go to their classrooms, munching Oreo cookies, Cheetos, and Pop-Tarts. “Junk food, at such an early age. The problem starts at home,” I thought.
Once the parents gathered, the school administrators rolled out two beautifully decorated tables for breakfast, in celebration of Valentine’s Day. They were chock full of frosting-covered cupcakes, trays of breads, and bagels next to tubs of Philadelphia cream cheese. No fruit in sight. I was moved by the good intentions of the school organizers, yet struck by the irony of the breakfast choices considering the topic I was brought in to talk about.
Type 2 diabetes accounts for 95% of the almost 30 million diabetes cases in the U.S. and obesity is a risk factor for developing the disease. Children and adolescents are increasingly being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes due to high obesity rates. While these statistics are true of the population in general, the Hispanic population fares even worse. Poverty, low health literacy, unhealthy eating habits, readily available and cheap fast food, and lack of access to health care compound the problem.
During our presentation, we talked about the importance of nutrition and good eating choices. I explained the DASH diet and reinforced the importance of more fresh vegetables and fruit, low-fat and non-fat dairy, whole grains, beans and nuts, legumes, lean meats, and fiber in our diets. We discussed the link between sugar and diabetes and the link between salt and hypertension. As we ended, we served the group lean turkey and vegetable chili with brown rice, and offered fruits. Our audience seemed to enjoy the healthy food samples (they asked for seconds), asked good questions, and held on to their DASH diet brochures. Several said they were ready to make changes. I really hope so, for them and their kids. I left wondering what else we could have done to touch their lives. Who knows? Maybe we did.
My team and I were invited to go back in May for the school’s health fair. It is my wish to see more fruits and vegetables next time, as a concrete sign that our message hit home. And I know Aunt Pat would approve.