Healthy Chicas aims to help overweight Latinas in Miami

Every Monday, Iomara Morejon looks forward to attending Healthy Chicas, a program at Miami Children’s Hospital that is designed to empower overweight and obese Latinas to become educated about healthy eating habits while losing weight.

The 15-year-old sophomore at Coral Gables Senior High School was originally part of a three-week pilot program that launched last summer. Now, she is one of 18 girls participating in the full 10-week program, which consists of one hour of physical fitness — salsa, boot camp, belly dancing, yoga — and one hour of nutrition education once a week.

“I wasn’t sure about the program at first because so many programs say that you will lose all the weight, but then you gain it back,” she said. “This program is different. It teaches you ways to be healthy without being stressed out about it, and you meet girls with the same issues.”

Healthy Chicas, founded by Rosa Gomez de Jesus, a doctor specializing in adolescent medicine, says the idea of the program is to educate, expose and develop a bond between daughters and mothers — who also take part in the program — free of charge.

Grants awarded by Coca Cola and CarMax have allowed Healthy Chicas to provide participants with shirts, water bottles, measuring cups, a pedometer, classes taught by professionals, healthy snacks, gasoline gift cards and taxi services.

“We try to cover all of those things so they can get here and get the benefits of the program,” Gomez de Jesus said. “Research showed that transportation was a big issue, so being able to provide that to them is really good.”

The girls, who range from ages 12 to 18, are weighed on the first and ninth Monday of the program. They are also given a logbook in which they track physical activity and nutrition on a daily basis. It is checked every week.

Gomez de Jesus says that if the girls are exercising and eating properly, they should be losing one to two pounds a week. “They can do it, and it is possible,” she said.

Morejon is an example that losing weight is possible. Since the start of the pilot program, she has lost 20 pounds and hopes to continue seeing a smaller number every time she weighs herself.

Her advice: Stay away from fatty foods and junk food at school.

“I feel good every time I weigh myself,” she said. “It is a slow process, but you have to be sure of your goal and you have to dedicate yourself.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has tripled in adolescents over the past 30 years. Being overweight or obese is the result of “caloric imbalance,” not enough calories burned for the amount of calories consumed.

Although research is limited on overweight and obese adolescent Latinas, the CDC states that 31.9 percent of Hispanics ages 18 and over are obese and 39.3 percent of Hispanics are overweight.

Jennifer Caceres, a registered dietitian, points out that the traditional Hispanic diet is heavy in carbohydrates and fats and low in fruits and vegetables. She hopes that by educating the mothers and daughters participating in Healthy Chicas they can begin incorporating the right portion sizes and food groups into their daily diet.

“This is a lifestyle change and this is why people feel very annoyed and frustrated when they lose weight for a certain period of time and then gain it back because they never really made long-term changes,” Caceres said. “Making these lifestyle changes is when you see the difference and feel more energetic and accomplished.”

Caceres said the hardest thing to get obese and overweight adolescents to understand is that losing weight is possible. Many of them feel “hopeless” because nothing — dieting, skipping meals or juicing — has worked for them.

“Changing their whole mindset is difficult, but we want to let them know that they can do this and this is feasible for them,” she said.

Adds Gomez de Jesus: “If we can get one of these girls to actually make the decision to try, that is all they need. They have other girls around them, and that helps them, and makes them want to try.”

To sign up, contact the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Miami Children’s Hospital, 305-668-5525.

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