Family fights obesity scourge

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

AURORA The dinner plates at the Veleasquez home were as colorful as a Cezanne painting.

On this Saturday evening, the family was dining on pink grilled salmon, baked purple potatoes, yellow Colorado sweet corn and a mlange of steamed vegetables: carrots, green beans and cauliflower. Dessert was bright orange sweet potatoes, fresh from the grill. There was no butter sauce or sour cream to drench on anything.

Instead green limes garnished each plate and Karla, 8, was squeezing them on her purple potato to add extra zest.

This kind of healthy, nutrient-packed meal is the norm now for the Velasquezes, who emigrated from El Salvador more than a decade ago.

But its a dramatic departure from the typical dinners they ate a year ago, and strikingly different from the kind of food that most Coloradans are choosing every day.

Sandra Velasquez works at Chipotle where healthy options abound. But the serving sizes are notoriously giant, like at most restaurants and fast food joints. Sandra used to bring home big bowls of beans, rice and meat with plenty of cheese, sour cream and guacamole for each member of the family.

Carlos Velasquez, 13, holds a photo from when he was younger and struggling with his weight. Carlos and his family learned to prepare healthier meals through the Get Fit program. He also works out with his swim team three times a week.

Today, she rarely buys dinner for her family at work. And, when she does, she brings home one bowl minus the unhealthy toppings and divides the super-size serving onto plates for three people.

As obesity grows into our No. 1 health epidemic and Colorado now faces the second fastest-growing obesity rate among children in the country, the Velasquezes are on the front lines of the fight against an epidemic that is striking Latino children especially hard.

According to the 2010 Colorado Health Report Card and obesity data culled from the National Survey of Childrens Health, Hispanic children are three times more likely to be obese than white children. Of children in Colorado, 7.6 percent of white children were obese in 2007 compared with a staggering 25.3 percent of Hispanic children.

The Velasquez family decided to seize control of their dinner table after watching an older son, now 21 and living in El Salvador, become obese and find it nearly impossible to change his life or his body.

We dont want them to end up like that, Sandra Velasquez says gesturing to her other two children, Carlos, 13, and Karla, 8.

Theres a problem with being overweight in our family and theres a problem in our community, said Carlos Velesquez Sr., who works at an auto repair shop.

The Velasquezes believe that the problem is especially pronounced in the Latino community because people are busy, healthy food is expensive, and many immigrants have fallen into the American trap of buying junk food and not getting much exercise.

Always we buy the cookies, the soda, the ice cream, Carlos Sr. says. People here are fatter than other countries. Maybe its because they have big kitchens but they dont use them.

Sandra believes parents use bottles of juice and junk food to keep kids content and quiet.

Maybe they know (its bad) but theyre a little lazy, she says. Then, she shows how parents behave, Here, drink the juice.

The Velasquez children see medical providers at the Aurora office of Rocky Mountain Youth Clinics. Carlos is a fit eighth-grader now, but a few years ago, before he grew taller, he was a little chubby.

They told us we were overweight, said Carlos Jr. At first, I didnt accept it. I thought, I dont need this. Im fine.

Doctors at the clinic suggested enrolling the children in their Get Fit clinic. The entire family embraced the program, which is managed both by their doctor and a nutritionist. The program does not emphasize weight loss. Rather it promotes healthy lifestyles.

The Get Fit nutritionist encourages families to make simple, lifelong changes, like switching from soda to water and white rice to brown, that can help children maintain their weight and grow more fit as they gain in height. The Velasquezes still use plates that they received through the clinic. The plate has dividers that help people vividly see how vegetables should fill half the plate while small servings of protein and carbohydrates should share the other half.

Sandra became vigilant. She cleaned out her cupboards. No more Cocoa Puffs or Froot Loops. She started buying corn flakes, wheat pasta, wheat bread and brown rice that cooks fast. She and her husband now take time to cook for the family, often grilling their meals. They make an effort to serve vegetables. Karla used to dislike carrots, but is now a big fan of steamed vegetables.

And Sandra signed the kids up for swim team at a nearby rec center. They now go three times a week. At first, Carlos Jr. didnt like the swim classes and felt like he might drown. Now, he and his sister are learning all the strokes and enjoy gliding through the water.

We changed a lot, Carlos Jr. said. After a long time, I got used to it. It became part of the routine.

Today the teenager sounds like a nutrition expert himself.

McDonalds food is over-processed, he says. If you buy French fries there and leave them out for days, they wont even grow mold.

Hes been paying attention to the debate over whether fast food companies will convince carmakers to install even bigger cup holders to accommodate ever-larger cups of soda. Regardless of the size, Carlos has noticed that the drinks always seem to cost less than a dollar.

Carlos Jr. said he hasnt talked with his friends about the Get Fit program.

Ive never told them. They dont ask, he says.

But, he has noticed that he feels better.

I think I have a lot more energy, he said. Before I used to want to sit on the couch.

Carlos is not a big video gamer. The family has a Wii, but he doesnt play it much. Instead, hes fascinated with architecture. Sometimes he watches a TV show on the Discovery Channel called Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero, but everyone in the family is trying to stay active.

They live in a picturesque white home with bright green trim and shutters. Out back theres a trampoline, where the kids sometimes bounce around. Karla likes riding her bike and both kids enjoy cruising around the neighborhood on scooters.

Ice cream has become a treat, not a staple thats always in the freezer. The Velasquezes have a new tradition. If they want ice cream, they have to walk to the Dairy Queen.

We walk together. Its about an hour there. We get a small dip. Then, its about an hour home, Sandra says.

Carlos Jr. grins and adds, We get the treat, then we lose the treat.

The children have grown slimmer as theyve grown taller. The parents have maintained their weight and Sandra wants to follow in her childrens footsteps by getting even more fit.

I want to be like my son in a few years very handsome, she says, grabbing Carlos and hugging him.

Says Carlos Sr.: Spend more time with your kids because if you dont change, obesity will keep growing and growing in the community.