CHELENE LOPEZ goes over materials with the students of "Tu Corazón, Tu Vida (Your Heart, Your Life)" in preparation for their final exam Monday.
Credit: Emily Charrier-Botts
On Monday evening, 19 students sat down for a home-cooked meal at La Luz, but this meal was missing something significant - namely salt, fat and oil.
The students had just graduated "Tu Corazón, Tu Vida (Your Heart, Your Life)," an 11-week series of classes offered at La Luz by the St. Joseph's Health System, which teaches everything from the importance of proper diet and exercise to how to shop healthfully on a budget and get kids excited about fruits and vegetables - all in Spanish.
"It's all from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, it's their curriculum," said Montse Khoury of St. Joseph's. "We love that it's all really hands on."
For example, the students made veins so they could see exactly how plaque builds up, causing the blockages that lead to heart disease.
In one session, students learned how to get up and move with a Zumba class. During another class, they got to see exactly how much fat goes into one hot dog.
"One of the students came up to me and said 'I don't think I'll ever eat a hot dog again.' He didn't realize what he was eating," Khoury said.
The goal of the series is more than just teaching La Luz clients how to take better care of their health. The course is designed so that recent graduates return as "Promotores de Salud (Health Promoters)" during the next series of classes to teach a new crop of students. The graduates are also encouraged to share their knowledge with friends and family, spreading awareness about the importance of heart health.
"The mission is to train people to disseminate the message," Khoury said.
On Monday, La Luz graduated its third class of students, and plans to offer the series again starting in September.
For Denia Olei, a graduate of the first session who returned to teach as a health promoter, she said the experience was eye-opening.
"Your whole life, you make food with too much oil, too much salt. When you come here, you change your life," she said, adding that she joined to better learn how to manage her diabetes, and has found the cooking tips particularly useful. "You get these little ideas and you can bring them to your home. It has no fat, but it has the same taste."
Olei said one of the most practical pieces of information she learned was how to read a nutrition label and understand what different nutrients do to the body.
While more and more foods offer nutrition information in Spanish and English, Olei said it was helpful to know the labels all generally list the information in the same order, allowing her to quickly zero in on sodium levels and fat contents.
"We didn't have any idea what trans-fat is before (this class)," she said.
La Luz and St. Joseph's partnered to develop the program last year in an effort to better educate the Hispanic population about heart health. According to the California Diabetes Program, Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to develop diabetes as Caucasians, and those with diabetes are at a much higher risk for heart disease.
"We really focus on diabetes, high blood pressure and other health issues that impact the heart," Khoury said.
Kara Reyes, director of family services at La Luz, said the organization is doing what it can to make the class as accessible as possible to their clients, such as offering childcare and hosting it after work hours. She said the class has been popular with both men and women, which is rare.
"In our other nutrition class, it's 100 percent women," she said.
During Monday's class, students took their final exam before feasting on a dinner of favorite foods made with a heart healthy twist, such as ceviche with soy. After they received certificates of completion, the students also got a graduation present from Whole Foods that includes measuring cups and gift certificates.
"A lot of the participants have never been able to afford organic foods. It's big for them to learn about pesticides," Reyes said.
To learn more about "Tu Corazón, Tu Vida" or any of the other programs available at La Luz, visit laluzcenter.org or call 938-5131.
Credit: Emily Charrier-Botts