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Nutritionists Cater Healthy Eating Programs to Immigrants

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At a recent "Cooking Matters for Families" class at the Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church, around 30 participants sat under fluorescent lights, chopping fruits and vegetables on cutting boards. The day’s menu: veggie pizza on whole wheat English muffins and a fruit and yogurt parfait.

Gladys Bonilla, originally from Honduras, learned about the cooking class on a visit to the church’s food pantry and soup kitchen, and she loves it. Bonilla, who has diabetes, says thanks to the class she has cut the amount of salt and oil she uses and she eats fewer fried foods.

“I feel happy in this place,” Bonilla said in Spanish through a translator. “I feel like part of the family here.”

City Harvest, the non-profit organization that sponsors the "Cooking Matters" course, focuses on teaching healthy cooking techniques, recipes and nutrition basics.

Experts in the field say it's a good start but making significant changes to a person's diet requires more, particularly among immigrant groups. In the absence of a city-led effort, various organizations and individuals are developing their own ways to encourage immigrants to eat healthier.

First, they say, an understanding of the specific food culture is key.

“Often people create one-size-fits-all materials and it’s not useful,” said Christina McGeough, a certified diabetes educator who’s worked as a bilingual nutritionist for almost 10 years. “You need to know who the person or population is. Once you know that, you can design a message that speaks to them."

“When you’re thinking about improving health and cooking, think of heritage as a motivator,” said Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, a nonprofit that released the Mediterranean diet pyramid in 1993 and has since created pyramids and “healthy plates” for four other ethnic diets.  “There’s so much science that continues to come out that traditional diets are so much healthier for not only weight control, but health conditions like cardiovascular disease."

For her part, McGeough uses focused tactics with her patients at The Institute for Family Health in the Bronx, 60 percent of whom are minorities. Many of her patients are also immigrants.

If her patient is West African, for instance, she may show them a tailored version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate. McGeough’s version uses the standard multi-colored plate, split into different food groups, but her options reflect foods commonly found on West African dinner tables, such as starchy cocoyam, cornmeal, cassava, protein-filled black eyed peas, maafe and kitoza.

When working with someone who is Muslim, she inquires about their fasting schedule and explains how it may affect their diabetes management. For those from the Dominican Republic, McGeough may explain how root vegetables can impact a patient’s diabetes and encourages them to make healthy meals using starchy mofongo, yams, beans and pork. 

According to McGeough, many immigrants eat the same amount of food as they did in their home country, but are less active once in the U.S., while others give up traditional foods and switch to the many convenient and easy-to-access foods available in the States. This can increase waistlines, as well as the chance of developing diabetes.

“Lots of communities of immigrants live in low-income areas where there’s less fresh fruits and vegetables available and more fast food,” she said.

Latinos are particularly at risk for obesity, diabetes and related health conditions like heart disease. According to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 26.5 percent of Latinos in New York City are obese, and 13.2 percent of them have diabetes, the highest rate of any ethnic group in the city.

Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation. Fi2W podcasts are supported in part by WNYC Radio and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Families cook together at a healthy eating class in the South Bronx.
Families cook together at a healthy eating class in the South Bronx. ( Juhie Bhatia )
Cooking students learn about the health consequences of sugary drinks at a City Harvest class.
Cooking students learn about the health consequences of sugary drinks at a City Harvest class. ( Juhie Bhatia )