Recipe for Weight Loss

Vilma Hernandez (middle) with a graduating Weight Management cohort.

There are very few of us who aren’t familiar with the so-called “battle of the bulge.” Imagine compounding those weight-loss struggles with a lack of appropriate information and the demands of living on a low income and it’s easy to foresee the results: obesity, diabetes and other chronic health issues. Thankfully, for MEND clients, there’s Vilma Hernández, a woman on a mission.

While studying for a Master’s in public health programming at CSUN, Vilma became interested in health-promoting behavior and weight management among the Hispanic population. “The more I read about it the more my suspicions about the barriers to weight loss were confirmed,” she explains. “The main hindrance was that most programs were targeted to the English-speaking community: They were translated from English to Spanish but they weren’t culturally sensitive, so there was some detachment—the [Hispanic community] felt alienated,” she adds. Not surprisingly, within that demographic, the dropout rate for weigh-loss schemes was high.

Vilma’s aha moment came when she heard about MEND through a schoolmate, who informed her that close to 90% of the organization’s clients were Hispanic. Vilma realized this would be the perfect environment to continue her research, and set about designing a culturally sensitive program targeted specifically toward the nonprofit’s clientele. Compounding the dire need for such an initiative was the fact that the obesity rate among Hispanics and African Americans is much higher than for other groups.

Following a survey of MEND clients, Vilma and her colleagues launched the Weight Management Program in 2014. The program encompasses several components, among them market tours, during which participants learn how to identify high-quality, inexpensive foods and how to read nutrition labels. “When we come back to MEND at the end of the session clients do a show and tell, and describe what they’re planning to do with the ingredients they bought at the store,” Vilma explains.

The program also incorporates cooking classes, and individual nutrition consultations with student dietitians. “It’s centered around member participation,” points out Vilma. “I ask them questions and invite them to talk about their experiences, so everyone learns from each other. If an individual has lost weight they have the opportunity to tell others what they’re doing and how they’ve been successful.”

So far, the results have been very promising. Vilma describes one MEND client who has signed up for three consecutive programs. Thanks to discussions on how to manage carbs and combine them properly with protein, her diabetes is under control. “Every time I see her, she has lost more weight,” says Vilma. “Before, she wore a brace and used a walker; now, she only needs a cane, and walks much more quickly. She’s full of vitality and even looks younger. The transformation has been amazing!”

Food isn’t the only item on the agenda, however. Because the program also aims to address other health-related issues that tie in to weight regulation, such as exercise and stress reduction, classes are beginning to incorporate physical activity, like stretching moves and yoga. Describing the vicious cycle of emotional eating, Vilma says, “Stress can make people eat more, which causes anxiety—they then start to rely on food for stress relief. Yoga can really help clients release tension and calm them down.”

Not only have clients reaped the benefits, but Vilma has too. “I’m in love with this program,” she adds. “It’s my baby!”

By Volunteer Lesley McCave