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Rice, beans and meat used to heap the oversize plates of Vanessa Salido’s guests. In the Hispanic community, she explains, filling guests’ plates with “anything and everything” is a gesture of hospitality, a way to ensure they feel welcome and happy.
Salido cooked what her mother taught her, and what her mother’s mother taught her. Portion control and nutrition labels were not in her vernacular, and consequently, what was once a source of pride for Salido soon became the root of her family’s health problems.
When Salido’s son Brandon was 7 years old, he had a body mass index (BMI) in the 99th percentile for his age and on several occasions, his blood pressure read well above normal for an adult. On a visit to Colorado from Texas, Brandon ended up at Children’s Hospital Colorado after experiencing stomach pain and headaches.
Salido thus moved her family to Colorado, where a cardiologist followed Brandon, monitoring him for hypertension and prescribed medications for his blood pressure. At this time, Brandon was also diagnosed with obesity, and caregivers explained that his elevated blood pressure was most likely a result of his diet, lack of activity and weight status. Salido then enrolled Brandon in a weight control program at Children's Colorado.
“I remember that first appointment very clearly,” Salido says. “They asked me about portions – I’d never heard about portions – and asked me how we usually eat. Then the dietitian asked me why I was really there.”
Salido told them she wanted permanent change, understanding that this would require her undoing everything she’d learned about food and starting from scratch.
“It’s easier to give your child a pill instead of making big life changes,” Salido says, her observation the antithesis to her mothering style. “These changes are very hard. It takes everyone and everything.”
Change started with regular appointments at Children’s Colorado, where dietitians taught Salido the basics: portion size, how to buy a food scale, how to read a nutrition label, how to make healthier food choices, and where to find healthier recipes.
At home, she emptied the pantry of processed foods high in fat and sugar, and filled the refrigerator with vegetables. She purged the sugary cereals, excess salt and oil, and cola, and added fiber and fat free milk. She discontinued the family’s weekly post-church buffet at a local restaurant, and now they often spend restaurant money on small trips to the mountains instead. She also removed the TVs from the rooms and cancelled her cable subscription until they learned to manage TV time.
Now, they walk everywhere, jog to school (weather permitting), and ride their bikes. After dinner, they go for a family walk or Salido encourages the kids to play outside.
It was not easy to change, and Salido found herself saying “no” a lot. At first, the kids cried about new rules, but Salido stood her ground, and eventually they came around, and now they often make healthy choices without being asked.
The monumental changes paid off: Brandon, now 13, slimmed down, lowered his blood pressure to normal, went off his medications and rarely gets sick anymore. He joined a fall and spring soccer team and is currently enrolled in a winter basketball team. When he was overweight, his peers bullied him and teachers asked if he had diabetes; now, he has an active social life and craves sports.
“He doesn’t want to stop sports,” Salido says. “He said, ‘Mom, if you take me out of sports, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.’”
Salido’s life changes affected other friends and family members. Salido’s mother and sister were obese and on medication for high blood pressure. Under Salido’s influence, they lost weight and are off medications.
Similarly, friends and neighbors invite Salido into their homes so they can learn how to change.
“I stay positive,” Salido says. “This is my lifestyle now and I’m very happy with it.”