Community Health: Taking On the Obesity Epidemic

On most weekdays and some evenings, you will find Lucette Talamas having conversations with people about their food choices, a topic most people would just as soon not think about, let alone talk about. However, faced with health problems and a desire to lose weight, they are both listening and talking.

A registered dietitian with Community Health, part of Baptist Health South Florida, Talamas is a member of a growing team of dietitians and fitness experts, who in addition to counseling patients, develop free nutrition and fitness education programs and take them on the road.

Community Health is promoting healthy eating and physical activity across South Florida — and doing its part to make a dent in the nation’s obesity epidemic, says Danny Elfenbein, manager of Community Health. Dietitians and fitness specialists augment the efforts of government programs and physicians, with consumer-friendly programs and screenings designed to empower people.

Obesity is linked to life-threatening diseases including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and some types of cancers, including breast and colon.

“It’s a new role for a dietitian,” says Talamas, who began with the department four years ago. “Usually when you see community dietitians, they work for the state or county department of health or through a federal program.”

Meeting People Where They Are

“What we’re doing is essentially amplifying access to nutrition education in the community,” Elfenbein says. “Nutrition education is for everybody. Educating the public on healthy eating is a critical first step in fighting obesity-related health issues affecting our entire community.”

Last year, Community Health engaged more than 200,000 people in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties with wellness programs, including 60 focused on nutrition. The team also launched three weekly nutrition sessions for Baptist Health Primary Care offices to provide the support needed for healthy lifestyle changes. Programs are free and open to the public, aimed at all age groups, but specifically beneficial for people with diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.

Nutrition education and fitness programs are not new at hospitals. Baptist Health, in particular, has been a leader in prevention programs, establishing mall-walking fitness groups 20 years ago, and other efforts since then. However, Community Health represents a significant extension of other existing community benefit campaigns,  Elfenbein says, including partnerships with organizations and municipalities. Some sessions teach people how to read nutrition labels and make the right choices at the grocery store with routines they will remember. Evening programs like “In the Kitchen” offer interactive cooking demonstrations where families can taste and gain exposure to new foods.

A New Approach to Primary Care

Community Health also supports a new approach to primary care, initiated within the last year.

“We know from a prevention and wellness perspective that healthy living starts in primary care,” Elfenbein says, “so patients in Baptist Health Primary Care are being referred to a group program led by one of our dietitians.”

The programs are important, he says, because while doctors direct patients to lose weight and exercise, people who are already challenged by health problems and years of poor eating and exercise habits, don’t know how to make a lasting change. In addition, the likelihood of healthy behavior changes increase with repetition. Patients build a relationship with the dietitian and other healthcare professionals within the primary care team. Each of them play a key role in supporting the patient through their health journey.

“As an educator we have to meet people where they are,” Talamas says. “If they are scared, if they’ve been recently diagnosed, there’s a moment of ‘I have to make a change’. You have a group of people, and they really get encouragement from each other while getting the nutrition facts from a dietitian.”

Nutrition experts say the reasons why nearly 70 percent of Americans are overweight, and more than 35 percent of those are obese — despite warnings from physicians and health organizations — are complex and multi-faceted. Misleading food advertising, socio-economic and psychological factors play a role, along with conflicting research studies.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has employed targeted nutrition education efforts for decades, most recently with MyPlate, which provides a visual of what a healthy meal should look like. Yet, Elfenbein says, obesity remains a problem. Meanwhile, Baptist Health dietitians are on the front lines of the issue, dispersing reliable nutrition information to patients and the community.

“In public health, there’s a gap between what scientific research says works and what the public absorbs,” Elfenbein says. “Our job is to take the tenets of MyPlate and actually engage people in a way they want to understand it.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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