A customized program that increases healthy eating for families with Mexican roots

New research shows that children of Mexican descent consume fewer sugary drinks, French fries and fast food and eat more vegetables after participating in Abriendo Caminos, a culturally designed educational program with their families.

Abriendo Caminos (Opening Roads) aims to help Hispanic families live healthier lives by incorporating traditions and personal values ​​into lessons on nutrition, physical activity and family wellness.

“One of the sayings promoted throughout the workshop series was ‘mas o menos.’ We can do a little more than that and a little less than that,” says Kimberly Greider, professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University and a counseling specialist in the humanities. Let’s live a healthier lifestyle.”

Greder, co-author of the paper at International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Healthand colleagues, the effectiveness of the Abriendo Caminos approach during 2017-2018.

The researchers say their findings add to a growing body of evidence that the program is an effective health intervention and should be scaled up.

Nearly 400 Hispanic families from Iowa, Illinois, California and Texas participated in the randomized controlled trial between 2015 and 2019. Half of them were assigned to Abriendo Caminos. The other half (the control group) received handouts about nutrition and physical activity in Spanish but had no personalized educational programmes.

Using questionnaires available in Spanish and English, parents reported how often their children (aged 6-18) drank eight items each week: sugar-sweetened beverages; 100% fruit juice; French fries; vegetables (other than french fries); Fast food; sweets (candy, ice cream, biscuits, cakes); and salty snacks (chips, crackers, pretzels).

“While we did find some improvements in diet with both groups, the changes in decreased frequency of sugar-sweetened beverages, french fries and fast food and increased vegetable consumption were significantly greater for young people who participated in the educational intervention, Abriendo Caminos, compared to young people whose families had just received the printed materials.” Greeder says.

Nutrition, exercise, family time

Abriendo Caminos was created to address the disproportionately high rates of obesity among Hispanic children in the United States, Greder says. Mounting evidence suggests that programs that include parents and children who learn together about healthy lifestyles may have greater long-term effects.

“Our lifestyles are influenced by other people in our homes. Their behaviors, preferences, stress and schedules can all affect what we eat, our sleep and activity levels, and parents are most often gatekeepers to food and how their children spend their time,” says Greider.

Each session of the Abriendo Caminos workshop includes three parts: Nutrition, Physical Activity and Family Time.

After families share a meal together, parents and young adults fall into two groups to learn how foods and drinks affect the human body, barriers to making healthy food choices, and ways to make realistic changes. Lessons for young people also include food and tasting demonstrations (for example, try plain jicama, with lemon juice, or chili powder and choose their favorite).

Then parents and young people get together again and do physical activities together as a family, which are meant to be fun and easily replicable at home. These activities include dancing with Hula-Hoops and Zumba, and jumping and stretching with TheraBands.

We talk about health

Family time focuses on communication about food and health. Part of that involves mapping how family members spend time each day and trying to determine how they can make small changes to their routine to work toward the goals they set earlier in the program for healthier lifestyles.

For some families, it may be deciding what tasks they can do before they go to bed, so they don’t rush in the morning (for example, getting dressed for the next day, preparing packed lunches). For others, it may be setting a consistent time each day for the family to play a game or do physical activity together.

“To make changes in behavior, we often have to talk about what is important to us and what influences our decisions. So if you can have these conversations together, you can both understand each other a little bit better and achieve goals together as a family,” says Greder. .

She cited the example of beans, which are a staple in many Hispanic families and are nutrient-dense, low in fat, and high in fiber. Some kids may get tired of eating them and find it hard to understand why they don’t take their parents to McDonald’s every night for dinner.

“Food is a vehicle for transmitting traditions and culture in the family. Talking about foods and the special meanings they carry in families helps children understand why their parents value certain foods and prepare them in certain ways and may learn to appreciate and enjoy them as well.”

Greder says that many parents who participate in Abriendo Caminos work multiple jobs or long hours that cut back on eating together as a family. Weekly workshops are held at the most family-friendly time and create a space for parents and grandparents who attend to pass on their culture through food, spend time with their children, and learn how to make small changes as a family that can have long-term health benefits.

Additional co-authors are from the University of Illinois, California State University, Auburn University, the University of Houston, and the University of Puerto Rico.

Source: Iowa State University

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