Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL), a collaboration of the National Health and Wellness Partnership (NPHP), the Miami-Dade County Public Health Department, the Florida Department of Health and the City of Miami Beach, is a two-pronged effort to promote healthy eating while reducing the risk factors associated with chronic disease. The goal is to reduce illness and death due to common lifestyle disorders that are associated with obesity, including heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, cancer, and other diseases. Healthy Eating Active Living is a comprehensive approach that enhances the eating decisions of the family, integrates healthy eating with exercise to create a physically fit and disease risk free lifestyle. It provides information on healthy eating and the multiple benefits of healthy eating, with a focus on the family as the primary source of nutrition. Healthy Eating Active Living also facilitates communication between the family and the medical health care team, including primary care physicians, psychologists, nutritionists, and dietitians.
“My parents always told me that you should be careful what you eat and how much you eat because it could have a significant effect on your health,” explains Shauna Simmons, who is forty-eight years old and currently active in the Florida HEAL program. “And I definitely remember my mother telling me that when it came to eating, do not take any chances.” For Simmons, who was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of twenty-three, healthy eating active living is about making good food choices, getting plenty of physical activity, and watching what she puts into her mouth. “I realized at that age that my body did not function well if I didn’t move around a lot,” she says. “So I just started to get out and do things on my own, like hike up a mountain, go dancing, and walk with my dog.” By the time she became a mother, Simmons already had her own children, but she still saw herself as being very close to her parent’s needs.
The challenge for many parents with kids who are diagnosed with diabetes or other chronic conditions is how to balance work, family life, and maintaining a healthy eating lifestyle. “The first thing we learned in our family was to set goals and to work toward achieving them,” Simmons recalls. “We would set specific goals for the kids’ physical activity, which they then helped to achieve.” The kids’ parents were key players in their success. As long as the parents worked as a team, they found it much easier to provide their kids with a great exercise program and a nutritious, low calorie, low fat diet.
But even in low-income, healthy living areas, there are some tough challenges. In the town of Bradenton Beach, Florida, where Simmons lives, the children are busier than ever. “There are so many kids running around, playing, walking, and bike riding,” she explains. The result is an increase in unhealthy foods. This includes junk food, which is abundant around the area.
Schools in Bradenton Beach also have a difficult time creating awareness of healthy eating for low-income students. The school board has recently created a committee to address these issues. “We want to draw attention to the fact that we have a lot of kids in these food-desert areas,” says Simmons. “We don’t have a lot of resources for the promotion of healthy eating. Some schools don’t even have a kid-friendly cafeteria.”
Many school districts, such as those in Bradenton Beach, Florida, do have a kid-friendly cafeteria. At one high school, the students are encouraged to bring their own lunch to school. At another, parents can visit the school during lunch and hand out fruit, vegetables, chips, or whole grain bread to students with plates. The goal is not to turn every child into a vegetarian. The focus is on helping the kids develop healthy eating habits. These children tend to become more aware of their nutritional needs when they see a person carrying a freshly baked meal and eating it with a piece of toast.
Health officials point out that physical activity, such as sports, can have significant positive benefits for young people. For instance, low levels of physical activity have been associated with increased chances of being overweight or obese. In addition, low-level physical activity may lead to less participation in school physical education programs, which have been shown to reduce the risks of obesity. This includes being a member of the cheerleading team, joining the tennis or soccer team, or playing basketball in a competitive level.
In other words, low levels of physical activity may lead to chronic disease and unhealthy eating habits. The problem is not so much the low level of physical activity, but the combination of poor food insecurity and inadequate exercise. As a result, many kids today are carrying around excess weight and doing little to exercise. This combination has been associated with increased chances of developing chronic disease, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.