The South Bronx is notorious for its high obesity and diabetes rates —the highest in New York State. But Loretta Fleming, as part of a group of community health educators, is fighting this trend with
“I believe in education. I want other people to have the same chance I did,” she says.
The 14 Health People peer educators, all of whom have chronic disease, mainly diabetes, have lost an average of 30 pounds themselves and seen people flock to their courses. They’ve enrolled more than 1,000 participants in an intensive course designed to give those at high risk for diabetes—or already diagnosed—real tools and knowledge to improve their health.
These South Bronx fat fighters want to share a way of losing weight and confronting diabetes that can help the many
The Health People program is based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s National Diabetes Prevention Program for pre-diabetics and the Diabetes Self-Management Program developed at Stanford University. It emphasizes gradual lifestyle changes, with a focus on helping participants make an “action plan” that will best work for them.
“We’re not interested in diets,” says Chris Norwood, Executive Director of Health People. “We’re interested in people making progress in a way that makes them feel empowered and comfortable. If what you can do is give up one soda a day this week, that’s great. Next week it might be baking your chicken instead of frying it. Then you might start a regular walking program. All this will begin to add up and just become a comfortable part of your life. We regularly see that losing weight this way doesn’t have the ‘yo-yo’ effect of big loss but big regain so often seen with dieting. People are more apt to keep off weight that they lose slowly through manageable changes.”
To make participation convenient, Health People places its courses at senior centers, churches, mental health programs, medical clinics and other places right in the community. The courses have several sessions, giving participants plenty of time to learn ask questions, and help each other make progress.
But for all the promise that this focus on grassroots, peer-to-peer education holds, unfortunately, little funding is available to support proven weight loss and good diabetes education in the low-income communities that need it most.
However, based on their own personal experience and their work with others, the Health People peer leaders have developed and want to share the Health People Top Tips for Shedding Pounds and Feeling Good. Anyone can use these tips for step-by-step success at losing weight and feeling better in the face of diabetes.
“Just try what makes sense to you,” urges Loretta Fleming. “You could be very surprised by what you can accomplish. I sure was!”
- Make your own action plan.
Each week, write down the actions you believe you can realistically take for weight control. That way you can see your own progress. Typical goals include reducing food portions; starting any kind of regular exercise; and, carefully reading labels.
- Create a supportive group and meet regularly.
Gather a group of family members, friends or neighbors, and meet weekly to share your thoughts and ideas. “What works for you may not work for everyone but by brainstorming together, you’ll figure out how to help each,” says peer leader Walter Brown.
- Get creative when it comes to exercise.
Exercise doesn’t have to mean a formal program or going to a gym. If you have a place to walk, just walking one half hour a day five times a week is highly recommended as a basic exercise for diabetes control and weight loss. Sandra Marin, another peer educator who lost 100 pounds, does Zumba tapes with her grandchildren. “We get the whole family moving” she says. Other options include local parks and community centers which often offer exercise opportunities that are free or very low cost. Also, some health insurers now pay for gym visits and other incentives. Drug stores, too, like Walgreens, have free walking apps that let you accrue points for rewards and coupons. There’s more out there than you think.
- Follow the three food musts: read labels, learn portion control and keep good snacks handy.
Reading labels is an eye-opening experience. Once you start, you quickly see how easy it is to be fooled into thinking something is “healthy.” The more you read, the better able you will be to monitor calories and the content of food—especially all the “hidden” sugar.
Portion control is a way of steadily reducing how much you eat—again, step-by-step, eating a little less. It also means that by changing what’s in your portions from fatty foods to fruits and vegetables, you will feel full but eat fewer calories. To better understand helpful portions of different food groups, try using www.choosemyplate.gov
Finally, keep healthy snacks that you like available. Things like cheese, fruit and plain popcorn. When hunger hits, these are much better choices than the usual high calorie junk food we turn to for snacks.
- Practice stress reduction.
Find what works to help you relax and keep a routine. Many listen to meditation tapes or music, read a book or take a long walk. The bottom line — reducing stress helps you maintain the healthy mindset which is key to achieving your weight loss goals and managing disease.
- Use online resources.
Education and information are empowering. “They eliminate doubts,” says peer educator Mary Brown. A few moments on the computer or a smartphone will put you in touch with lots of helpful sites. Some good places to start, include:
National Diabetes Prevention Program
National Institutes of Health’s “Fifty Ways to Prevent Diabetes” https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-type-2-diabetes/50-ways
Diabetic Living Website
- Take Time to Feel Good About Your Progress.
Keep a notebook and, every week, write down whatever you did to reduce your weight and improve your health. Read this back to yourself, share with your group and, most important, smile. You are eating better, losing weight and improving your health. Congratulation
Health People is a groundbreaking peer education, prevention and support organization in the South Bronx whose mission is to train and empower residents of communities overwhelmed by chronic disease and AIDS to become leaders and educators in effectively preventing ill health, hospitalization and unnecessary death.
Established in 1990 as a women’s AIDS prevention and support program, Health People has grown, using its peer-education model, to provide a full range of HIV/AIDS services for men, women and families. It also has conducted community asthma programs, New York’s first diabetes peer-educators program, and a community smoking cessation program. Health People’s Junior Peer program, Kids-Helping-Kids includes teens who are mentors for younger children with sick or missing parents.