Dr. Rosa Gomez de Jesus is a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine in Miami, Florida. As she saw her regular patients, she began to notice a large number of young Latinas suffering from weight problems.
That’s when she decided to do more than just counsel the teens to lose weight. Gomez de Jesus created Healthy Chicas, a program that helps educate adolescent Latinas and their mothers about healthy eating and physical activity.
“The idea of Healthy Chicas is to help patients to have the proper education and exposure to what healthy eating and physical activity is,” says Gomez de Jesus, who works at the Miami Children’s Hospital. “This is so that we can actually do something about the overweight and obesity problem we are seeing at this time.”
Dr. Gomez de Jesus is currently working with 18 girls ages 12-18 during the 10-week program, which is completely free for the girls.
“I like how I get to interact with girls that are more my age. That’s something I wasn’t able to do at home,” said Catherine Zilberberg, who is participating in the program. “Now I have a group of girls that can all relate to me and we can all do it together.”
Her mom, Marjorie Zilberberg, said the program has been beneficial for the entire family. Together they have learned how to read food labels and how to choose the right foods.
“Its something that we can do together,” said Marjorie Zilberberg. “Even though we are tired–I’m working all day, she is at school—It’s something we look forward to.”
The group gets together every Monday and with the help of grants from Coca Cola and CarMax, the hospital is able to provide free gas cards and taxi rides as incentives for the parents to continue coming.
“We try to have both patients and parents together because what we are trying to have is a family effort, we are trying to change lifestyles,” Gomez de Jesus said. “We can teach the girls what to do, but if at home none of that is happening, it will be very difficult.”
Healthy Chicas is composed of two sessions, each lasting about an hour. During the fist hour, the girls do different types of physical activities including exercise boot camps, salsa glasses and belly dancing classes. During the second hour, the girls get a nutrition lesson, where they learn about healthy eating habits from the program’s dietitian.
“People in general don’t know about food labels and they get confused and overwhelmed when they go to the supermarket so my job is to help guide them,” said registered dietitian Jennifer Caseres.
“A lot of Latino meals tend to be high in carbs and high in fats so making those little changes with their meals can make a big difference for them in terms of helping to lose weight and feeling more energetic,” she said.
Her goal has been to get the girls and their mothers eating more vegetables, which she said were frequently missing from Latino diets.
The girls have also received log books, where they can track their eating and exercise to compare their progress throughout the weeks.
“I feel better, I feel energized,” said Healthy Chicas participant, Julia Barrera. “I think I already lost a few pounds.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity in adolescents has tripled over the last 30 years. And although research is very limited in regarding overweight or obese young Latinas, the CDC does say that more than 39 percent of Hispanics are overweight.
“It’s a problem that is all around the United States-I don’t think it’s just Latinas,” Gomez de Jesus said. But she says she has seen an increase in the Hispanic community.