CHEER Supports Nutrition and Healthy Eating
By Anthea Levy
This fall, CHEER partnered with Holy Cross Hospital and offered the “Road to Health” fitness and nutrition class to residents of the Maple Avenue Ethiopian community as part of the Maple Tree Group. We adapted class presentations to a Zoom format, and fifteen women participants successfully tuned in to our weekly sessions. Our class members started with varying levels of knowledge. They were all very interested in creating healthier lifestyles for themselves and their families, and paid close attention throughout the classes. All claimed they learned a lot and were very thankful for this class. By the end of the class, they had started implementing many of the suggestions that they had learned. Two CHEER employees, Enku Taye and I led the class with Ivana Silva, a Holy Cross nutrition instructor.
It was very important for everyone to feel comfortable learning healthier eating habits, but not to feel that they were being forced to change their cultural recipes or traditions. We stressed the importance of cutting down on oils and carbohydrates, but that people may still eat their traditional foods. Enku helped translate to Amharic. The class began with risk factors for diabetes, what diabetes is, what the symptoms are and what the serious effects can be for the body. We pointed out the high prevalence of pre-diabetes in people in this country and that many people can be pre-diabetic and not even know it. We emphasized that pre-diabetes is reversible, and that good eating and exercise play key roles.
Most of the participants were not familiar with the information about diabetes. Several members of the class either had cases of diabetes in their families or had experienced gestational diabetes themselves. They did not necessarily know there could be risk factors for themselves or their children.
We introduced the traffic light method of nutrition – that teaches food intake by color – green, meaning you may eat a lot of vegetables and fruits. Orange, that you should use caution. And, red, that you should limit your intake. We went over the concept of portion vs. serving, and the plate divisions into sections for healthier eating.
In the next class, we discussed the importance of knowing what you are eating. In order to form good habits and notice what you eat, it is good to keep a food diary to track what you eat throughout the day.
There was a grocery tour. Everyone went on a virtual tour through a grocery store. We learned that all the foods are organized so that the green foods are on the outside walls of the store. Packaged and prepared foods are in the interior aisles and are the orange or red foods. Healthier foods are one-ingredient foods – or just a vegetable or a meat or a fish.
We talked about how to set up some of the simple food intake tracking apps for phones. We went through the setup of a MyFitnessPal account and how to use it for an Ethiopian recipe.
Several members of the class began losing weight. One person lost 13 pounds. She altered her eating habits and has incorporated a one-hour fitness workout five days a week. She says: “I love the class! I lost weight. It’s good for my children.”
Another person had been on a low-carb diet already since September and continues to lose weight from the time she started to the end of the classes.
“I have learned a lot today, I will try to use light olive oil and much less. I will check the sugar content of the foods I buy. I want to manage my portions and to eat less meat and more vegetables.”
Several people now drink a green smoothie at least three times per week.
The majority of the class now drinks between one-and-a-half and two liters of water per day.
“With COVID I walk up and down the stairs in my apartment so that I get exercise.”
“The housework I do during the day is my workout.”
“I will be more careful choosing the oil I use and looking at the sugar content in foods. I want to eat more fruits and a lot of vegetables.
“Class is very good. I’m learning a lot. I’m learning how to protect the health – for myself, for my family. I really need these important things”.
Another comment: "I didn't realize so much oil wasn't good...." Or, "Now I know to buy avocado oil and use it for high heat cooking. I will try to do this for the coming week."
For many of the participants, it has been the first time that they are hearing this information and it can be very contrary to what they have grown up with in their culture. So, for example, when we asked them for a food diary, some of the first reactions were comments such as: "When I eat, I just like to enjoy what I'm eating, I don't want to necessarily notice what I'm eating!" Or, "In our culture we just have our food, we don't write down what we're eating". There are lots of cultural differences, so we slowly built up to getting participants to record their food. After a few classes people started to share a lot about what they were doing.
Many of the concepts, like using less oil, or changing the type of oil that you're cooking with, are not welcome. People are afraid of losing their traditions, culture, becoming something else when they are away from Ethiopia. We are neither telling people to stop eating traditional dishes, nor are we trying to water down or drastically change the flavor of a traditional dish. But little by little, we can all lessen some of the oil and butter used, without risking a change in the flavors, and pay attention to our portions of food for each meal.