When eating out, Caroline Urbina chooses grilled chicken over chicken nuggets, broccoli instead of fries, and water rather than soda without hesitation. Smart choices for a 5-year-old faced with a menu full of unhealthy options.

The source of such wisdom is her mom Michelle Urbina, who has completed the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) program, an initiative of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health. HEAL helps women who are pregnant or have a young child embrace a healthier lifestyle for themselves and their families.

Urbina, 24, enrolled when she was expecting her second child, Clark, now a thriving infant. She credits the program, run by UT Physicians, with transforming her life. UT Physicians is the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

“I’m proof it totally works. I’ve lost 30 pounds and feel better in every way,” she said. “My whole family is benefiting because I’m sharing everything I’ve learned with them and putting it into practice each day.”

The program offers weekly group classes that include cooking demonstrations, exercise sessions, and fresh fruit and vegetables with healthy recipes for participants to take home, as well as health education and support on topics such as breastfeeding.

Since its inception four years ago, nearly 400 women and their families, often from medically underserved communities, have reaped its rewards.

“I went to the classes with my mom, who lost 15 pounds. She has struggled with her weight for years and has all the sicknesses – diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol,” Urbina said. “I was overweight too and knew if I carried on, I would be taking pills in my 30s. I wanted to avoid having health problems.”

Led by a registered dietitian and community health worker, each class covers a specific topic, such as food substitution.

“I always used to be a potato person. But I was shown how to make mashed potato with cauliflower and it tasted so great I even used the recipe at Thanksgiving,” she said.

Urbina has also learned how to “cheat with beets.”

“I grate the beetroot and mix it into tomato sauce. Instead of oils or butter, I’m using herbs and spices to add flavor,” she says. “In my culture, we eat a lot of tortillas, so all these tricks are very useful.”

Even some of the foods and beverages she thought were healthy have a darker side.

“I didn’t realize fruit juices are so full of sugar. Finding out how to look at labels and read the ingredients was an eye-opener,” she said.

Her discerning eye and healthy habits have already rubbed off on Caroline.

“My daughter eats her veggies. She enjoys them and whenever we go to a restaurant, she picks the healthy options,” Urbina said. “If you start them early, it’s easy. I’m going to make Clark’s baby food from scratch with beets, carrots, and spinach.”

The exercise demonstrations also prompt steps in the right direction.

“I had never tried yoga or meditation before. It really opened my mind and now I know what to do whenever I’m feeling stressed,” she said. “I have just joined a gym for the first time ever. I go with my husband and he’s so proud of me.”

Since losing weight and becoming more physically active, Urbina says she has lots more energy and self-confidence, not to mention an exciting new job helping disabled people gain employment.

“When you’re feeling positive, opportunities come your way and good things happen,” she said. “HEAL completely changed my life and I’m so grateful.”

Shreela Sharma, PhD, RD, LD, associate professor of epidemiology, human genetics, and environmental sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health, designed the program and is evaluating its effectiveness.

“The HEAL program is all about empowering women like Michelle with the knowledge and practical guidance to make healthier choices, which are also fun, tasty, and convenient,” Sharma said. “HEAL is unique because it links health care organizations to prevention services. By laying the right foundations at a prime time, women and their unborn babies or infants are reducing their risk of developing common chronic diseases and setting themselves up for a healthy future.”

More information about HEAL is available online or by calling 832-325-7314.

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