Lizet Espinoza-Bande made a promise to herself in college that set the course of her entire life.
It happened in the doctor’s office, as she waited to find out if a lifetime of eating poorly and avoiding exercise meant that she had developed Type 2 Diabetes before she turned 20.
“I went to get my glucose test, and I remember drinking all the syrup they make you drink,” she tells the Inside Track. “I remember thinking, ‘Please, if I come out of this test without diabetes, I’ll drink more water.’”
The diabetes test came out negative, and Espinoza-Bande kept her promise — and then some. She started drinking water, and then she started eating vegetables (a type of food she wouldn’t even think about touching before). After that, she decided to take up walking. A little bit later, she began jogging. She eventually lost 110 pounds.
Now at a healthy weight and fit enough to run a half marathon, Espinoza-Bande is determined to give back. She serves as health coordinator and nutrition consultant for AltaMed, a health care network that delivers care primarily to underserved communities in Southern California.
In her role, Espinoza-Bande teaches a 12-week educational program in the city of Santa Ana that is designed to show children and their families how to lead healthier lives.
Most of the families she works with come from the Latino community, which has higher obesity rates compared to other Americans. In 2011, for example, more than 70 percent of Latino adults in California were overweight or obese, compared to 58.6 percent of white adults.
Espinoza-Bande uses her own Latino heritage and her personal story to connect with her students. She focuses on helping them make simple changes, such as cutting out soda and potato chips in favor of fruit, vegetables and water. The students also work with a personal trainer, who teaches them how to do simple exercises they can do in their own neighborhood.
“If you start too drastic — I know my population, I work with them — they’re not going to do it,” Espinoza-Bande explains. “A lot of them, it’s gradual, little by little. And they have to trust you, and they have to feel you’re comfortable with them.”
Before they even enter her classroom, Espinoza-Bande’s students face hurdles to good health. While Santa Ana is located in wealthy Orange County, the city is mostly working class, and many residents live in neighborhoods that lack healthy, affordable food options (but are filled with fast food outlets). Meanwhile, there are not enough places to be physically active.
Nutrition classes like the ones Espinoza-Bande teach can cost thousands of dollars, but nearly all of her students take part for a reduced rate, some classes even free, through the AltaMed program. Many are referred by their physicians, who are looking to help the youngsters develop healthy habits in order to prevent them from developing conditions later on.
Sometimes, her students aren’t ready to get healthy, Espinoza-Bande says. But when they do, the change is incredible.
In one of the families she served, the parents made small changes such as serving whole wheat pasta and turkey meatballs and cutting out unhealthy sauces that included sugar as an ingredient.
“At the end of the program, one of the students had lost about 15 pounds,” Espinoza-Bande recalls. “His cholesterol levels decreased, his sugar levels decreased. If you really stick to the program, it really works.”
Another family faced a wall when it came to getting healthy: Grandma. While many members of the family had diabetes, the family matriarch was hesitant to make changes such as cutting out sugary drinks. That is, until she learned how it would help the youngest member of her family. “She didn’t want to do it. But now that she’s doing it for her grandchild, she’s doing it,” Espinoza-Bande says.
Above all, Espinoza-Bande reminds her students that she has been there. It took her ten tries before she developed a taste for spinach. At 19, she couldn’t walk a block, let alone run a mile. But by taking it one day at a time, she built a healthier future for herself.
“You see their little faces,” she says. “You just try to bring it home to them… you want them to learn something new each class.”
Click here to connect with Lizet Espinoza-Bande.