Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=101949
Story Retrieval Date: 5/25/2013 1:20:46 PM CST
Chicago has been able to shed the weight as the fattest city in America. But nutritionists and health professionals are still concerned about childhood obesity, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.
Clinical dietician Anastasia McGee saw this disparity first-hand when she worked at an outpatient clinic in the Austin neighborhood.
“At that time, I started seeing and treating more children for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes," McGee said. "My schedule became inundated with treating children. I was treating more children than treating adults.”
In predominatly Latino West Town, 73 percent of children are overweight or obese, compared to a national average of 26 percent, according to Chicago’s Healthy Schools Campaign, an organization dedicated to improving nutrition in Chicago public schools.
For many parents, the main problem is a lack of availability of healthy foods at affordable prices, McGee said. She left the Austin clinic to focus more on prevention, and is now the associate director of the Community Nutrition Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“When you walk into the corner store and the bodegas, that apple is 99 cents but you can get four bags of Flaming Hot Cheetos for a dollar. That’s what we’re faced with, the availability of healthy foods in the communities of need,” McGee said.
Melissa Graham, president of the non-profit Purple Asparagus, promotes parents and kids cooking together in the kitchen. She agreed that low-income communities are faced with unique challenges but shouldn’t write off a healthy diet.
“In communities where kids are not eating any fruits and vegetables, any kind of fruit and vegetable is better than nothing. But I think it’s important to expose kids to variety,” Graham said.
McGee and Graham offer this advice for feeding a healthy family when resources are limited and budgets are tight:
• Keep the culture, lose the fat – Both McGee and Graham caution against retaining unhealthy dishes just because they offer cultural comfort. McGee suggests swapping out unhealthy ingredients for lighter ones. “Instead of making greens with ham hocks and fat back, use turkey necks,” McGee said. Graham, on the other hand, thinks fattier foods such as lard and cheese have a place in one’s diet, but to watch the frequency. “Eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and save those higher-fat dishes for more special occasions. You can have fried chicken in your life, but it’s a Sunday meal. It’s not something you eat everyday,” Graham said.
• Get the kids in the kitchen – The more children are included in the meal-making process, the better decisions they can make for themselves, Graham said. “Ask your child what vegetable he or she wants for dinner. If he or she doesn’t have any suggestions, give two options to choose from. Before going shopping, let your child add a favorite fruit or vegetable to the list,” McGee said. Start off with vegetables that the kids are familiar with, Graham said. And in order to bring in new fruits and vegetables, “make it a game and make it fun.”
• Cut corners, not health – In the after-school sessions Graham hosts at Chicago elementary schools, she offers ideas for quick and easy recipes, such as a simple tomato salad on a stick. “We take a cherry tomato, a basil leaf and a piece of cheese. Super easy,” Graham said. In addition, not everything has to be farmers market fresh all the time in order to be healthy. “We can’t expect everyone to have fresh broccoli on their plate everyday. If it’s canned, it’s about how can we make it in the healthiest way,” McGee said, adding that reviewing nutrition labels is key when using packaged ingredients.
When incorporating these suggestions, it’s important to stress to children that weight-loss isn’t the goal. “We focus on healthy bodies, healthy minds. People can be healthy at all sizes,” McGee said. “We don’t focus on weight-loss, we focus on healthy lifestyles.”