Yes, it's the season to eat your way through plates of Christmas cookies, and laugh out loud at the ugly Christmas sweaters. I personally think it's just fine, even important, to set aside some of our dietary convictions and enjoy the festivities - with all the cookies and desserts they bring. I always make a quiet promise to myself to get back on track with the start of the New Year, even if it is getting harder to zero out those calories. But staying on a healthy diet is tough business when the money is tight, and even tougher if you suffer with a chronic illness like diabetes, high blood pressure, or depression. Alexander Senetar reminded me of that this year when, a few days ago, I received his preliminary findings on the overall health of our clients.
Alexander is an outgoing and committed med student at Midwestern University, who came to Loaves & Fishes over a year ago with a request to take a closer look at the development of chronic diseases among families strapped with food insecurity. We were happy to work with Alexander, and interested to know if our "suburban" populations were facing the same chronic illnesses often associated with long-term, food insecure families from more financially depressed communities. The results are in, and even though it's Christmas, they're not so merry and bright.
Armed with surveys, Alexander started asking questions last summer. He asked our clients about their health concerns and overall eating habits. Of the 203 adults at Loaves & Fishes who completed his survey,
• 16% had asthma
• 16.2% had type 2 diabetes (almost twice the state average of 8.5%)
• 30% had high blood pressure
• 23% had depression
• 76.8% were overweight or obese (note: height and weight was self reported)
Wow. With all of those red flags on the field, it's hard to know where to begin. But Alexander had a plan to take some next steps. He wanted to test the effectiveness of brief nutritional programs which promote changes in lifestyle and eating habits that would benefit our clients. We were encouraged because in our previous attempts at nutrition education, we found that tabletop discussions in our client waiting area will often draw as many as 30 to 40 curious visitors when, in a classroom setting, we might have 6-10 visitors. It's just a table planted in our client waiting area, loaded with food samples and a few well-chosen nutrition messages, but our hunch was that they deserved more attention than their low-key presence would suggest. It's a very casual, "water cooler" approach to nutrition education, but it can pack a punch.
Happily, Alexander agrees. In fact, his follow-up surveys indicate that even brief nutritional programs like these can result in significant improvements in eating habits. That combination of healthy encouragement and the availability of healthy choices is vital to those who are managing chronic illnesses.
Thanks, Alexander, for helping us to realize the value of a friendly one-on-one conversation, as well as the need for them. I am guessing that Alexander will one day be a stand-out member of our medical professional community. For the full version of Alex's findings, click here.
Jane Macdonald, Associate Director of Community Health