It was a table of empty bottles and bags of sugar that fueled Noe Arteaga’s “ah-ha” moment.
“This is how much sugar is in a can of Coke. It was a sandwich bag that is just full of granulated sugar,” Arteaga said.
Seeing that display at the health clinic where his diabetic mother was getting a check-up changed what he drank that day and how he’s lived his life ever since.
Noe is 22 and already pre-diabetic, based solely on who he is and where he comes from. His grandmother died from diabetes and his mother has it. He’s Latino, which is a high-risk ethnic group.
Now factor in that he’s 30 pounds over what is considered his ideal weight.
While Noe doesn’t have diabetes yet, fellow patient Mary Gonzales, 72, struggles to manage her weight and the disease.
“I’d rather have a tortilla with butter,” Mary says as she explains diet and diabetes management.
The buttered tortillas and other high-fat foods she loves have kept her clinically obese and a Type 2 diabetic for 27 years. She knows how difficult it is to put words into action.
“Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow, manana,” she says.
Excessive weight and Type 2 Diabetes are so strongly linked that researchers in the 1970s began calling it “Diabesity.”
One in two Americans has it and most don’t even know it.
“There is no magic bullet that we can give to people that’s going to change this epidemic, even though that’s what people hope for," said Valeria Ruelas, who runs the Diabetes Management Program at East LA Health Center.
There may not be a magic bullet, but stocking arsenals with life-saving education has kept diabesity rates steady in recent years.
The joint USC-UCLA Program targets the uninsured people from low-income neighborhoods whose local grocery stores often stock more brands of colas and Cheetos than quinoa and cauliflower.
“The nearest grocery store that sells fresh vegetables is two miles from my home,” Arteaga says. “I’ve taken the liberty of travelling 13 miles from my home in LA to a Whole Foods and spending five dollars on a half-pound of quinoa, but I think it’s totally worth it to share a food like that with my family.”
The Diabetes Management Program aims to change the community from within. If residents want healthier options but don’t have access, Ruelas does what she can to help.
“Let’s work on getting the quinoa here, in the grocery stores that are here,” she says.
Patients in the program are taught how to get rid of the things that send their biology out of balance while learning more about the foods and exercises that will help with re-balance.
Dietician Gabriela Rios, provides her patients with more than just a diet plan to follow.
“I’m trying to keep them motivated by giving them the opportunities to discuss maybe what’s going on in their life and tailor dietary needs and physical activity needs to that,” Rios said.
At only 22, Noe is being proactive and listening to Rios’ advice.
“I know more than anyone understands how amazing it is to sit on your couch and eat junk food, but it’s never too early or too late to start making changes,” he said.
Separating himself from the stats and becoming his family’s champion for change has been easier for Noe than for Mary.
She says it’s denial, and admits that it is easier not to think about it. However, she cringes at the alternative of not being here to see her 14 grand- and great-grandchildren grow up. Thinking about that, she wants to make health happen.
“They want to see me around a little while longer,” Mary says.