BY DR. KYLA LARA
One of our best opportunities to improve the health of our communities lies in access to fresh fruits and vegetables and nutrition education. Three out of four Queens residents are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, and some neighborhoods struggle more than others. That’s why this March, National Nutrition Month, I’m urging the city to do more to support access to affordable, healthy food, especially in neighborhoods that need it most.
As a child, my version of a “breakfast of champions” consisted of the typical Filipino mouth-watering staples of pork longuinisa, garlic rice and fried eggs. In my culture, eating until you burst was a sign of good health and security. However, once in college, I began to observe the decline of several family members’ cardiovascular health, including hypertension and hyperlipidemia in my mother, fatty liver in my 28-year-old cousin and a debilitating stroke in my grandmother that, ultimately, took her life. I began to question the role that diet played in their diseases and earned a master’s degree in human nutrition.
Through my studies in food science and practice of motivational interviewing, I became passionate about becoming a doctor, so that I could prevent further disease in my family and my patients. In the clinic, I talk with my patients about the importance of a healthy eating plan rich in fruits and vegetables, which can help lower risk of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes.
One of my patients, a 20-year-old woman with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) who suffers from obesity, has been battling poor food choices all her life. I realized the barriers in front of her were not ones that she created, but a combination of lack of nutrition education, unhealthy traditional cuisine she grew up with and access mostly to fast food in her neighborhood. At every visit, we review food labels and—in particular—serving size, calories from fat and sugar content.
We talk about ways for her to avoid fast food—for example, taking alternate routes on her walks to classes and snacking on green apples, which are full of antioxidants and also suppress appetite. As her doctor, I am impressed that she has been losing weight, despite the obstacles embedded in her environment.
Yet I see many patients from all over the city, including Queens, who struggle to put healthy food on the table. I feel perplexed as to how to motivate my patients to eat healthy when they live in neighborhoods where healthy foods—such as fresh produce and a variety of whole grains—are scarce. It feels unrealistic to tell patients to make a salad or steam seasonal vegetables when their local corner stores are filled with processed food.
In order to ensure that every family has access to the foods that help support a balanced diet and healthier life, I support the American Heart Association’s call for the city to expand access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) incentives that make healthy food affordable, make produce available at more corner stores and invest in grocery stores and other food markets in underserved neighborhoods. In addition, we must engage the community, provide culturally sensitive nutrition education at food retail sites and local farmers markets and make sure that stores promote and market the healthy items.
Only when my patients can afford and access healthy food will I truly be able to help them develop a nutritious diet and good health.
If you believe that all New Yorkers deserve access to healthy fruit and vegetables, join me in asking the NYC City Council to support healthy food access by visiting yourethecure.org/nyc.
Dr. Kyla Lara, MD, is an internal medicine resident at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.