Members of the Diabetes Prevention Program have weekly weigh ins. Photo by Jennifer Lopez.
Members of the Diabetes Prevention Program have weekly weigh ins. Photo by Jennifer Lopez.
Members of the Diabetes Prevention Program have weekly weigh ins. Photo by Jennifer Lopez.

Critsela Ortiz, 44, remembers the painful days of watching her mother slowly lose her life to diabetes. First blindness, then kidney failure, then one stroke after another.

“When you see your family die from this horrible disease, you become more conscious,” says Ortiz, a Highland Park mother of two. “I want my children to prevent diabetes and also want their children to learn how to prevent it.”

Ortiz was terrified that if she did not act soon, she could suffer the same way her mother did.

So, when she heard about a free diabetes prevention program for  pre-diabetic community members with high blood sugar levels, she jumped on it.

Type 2 diabetes is a disease in which high blood sugar levels damage the body. It was the seventh leading cause of death in the United States in 2012, yet nine in 10 people who are pre-diabetic don’t know it.

Avoiding diabetes

In Boyle Heights, more than one fifth of people over the age of 45 in ZIP Code 90033 have been diagnosed as diabetic or borderline or pre-diabetic, according to 2009 data from the California Health Interview .   Public health educators here hope to address the underlying issues that lead to the disease by offering programs in which participants learn how to monitor their own habits to avoid diabetes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has funded one such program — the National Diabetes Prevention Program ”“ in Boyle Heights. In 2012, the CDC awarded $6.75 million to community-based organizations around the country to develop collaborations with health care professionals, employers and insurers.

At the core of this program is evidence that shows that making daily life changes, such as becoming more physically active and eating a healthier diet, can lower the risk of diabetes. And while only individuals can make those changes, the program’s group meetings offer social support, which is motivating.

Since last fall, the YMCA has been offering the program at two YMCAs in Boyle Heights ”“ the East Los Angeles YMCA and the East Los Angeles YMCA at the Wellness Center.

Each Thursday evening at the Weingart East L.A. YMCA, six people, ages 18 to 65, sit around a table to share their week’s successes and challenges on their road to a healthier lifestyle. Some say it’s hard to find time to exercise; others ask for tips on how to avoid  unhealthy food temptations.

“Being [in this group] has helped me because everyone here has the same goal,” says Ortiz, who joined the program last fall and attends with her 18-year-old daughter, who she says is also overweight. “We all want the same thing: to be healthy and lose weight and take care of ourselves better.

Critsela Ortiz shares her challenges with other members of the Diabetes Prevention Program. Photo by Jennifer Lopez
Critsela Ortiz shares her challenges with other members of the Diabetes Prevention Program. Photo by Jennifer Lopez

Goal: 7% weight loss

Trained lifestyle coaches guide participants through a yearlong curriculum, which includes weekly weigh-ins, keeping a daily food log and learning how to read food labels to track fat grams. The two goals for participants: to reduce body weight by seven percent and increase physical activity to 150 minutes per week.

“I love their gung ho attitude,” says Juliana Aguayo, who coaches participants at YMCAs on the Eastside. “I have one lady saying, ‘We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do this together!’ to rally [others] up, and they don’t feel so scared or alone.”

In addition to providing group support, the programs emphasize taking responsibility for self-management. Participants choose what food they eat, and though they’re offered free temporary gym memberships, they’re not given any exercise training.

Ortiz, who teaches spinning lessons at the YMCA, did not lack exercise, but says she lacked education and discipline. Since joining the program, Ortiz says she’s made significant adjustments in her daily life, such as paying attention to the number of fat grams in her meals instead of just keeping track of calories.

After joining the program, Ortiz lost five pounds in seven weeks. At 5’ 7” and 204 pounds, she hopes to reach her goal of 175 pounds in a year. But she says the lifestyle changes have definitely been a challenge.

“The weekends are sometimes complicated for me because my family comes over to eat,” says Ortiz. She says she tries to avoid meat because “it contains a lot of fat — and then comes the weight gain.”

Aguayo says she teaches participants how to make the right choices when they go out to eat. She says role playing helps them “get comfortable in taking charge” and making decisions “like ‘I don’t want the extra cheese.’”

Health care practitioners say offering education to the public through these kinds of programs is key to preventing the disease, especially in low-income Latino communities.

“If you go into a community and teach them about diabetes, they’re more likely to be more conscious about it and can do better,” says Dr. Al Idriss, an endocrinologist at White Memorial Medical Center.

But that education is not easily attainable by those who lack health care, a common case for people in Boyle Heights. Idriss says that if patients do not have regular checkups, doctors cannot give them tips and warnings about the risks. When they do make it to a doctor’s office because of health problems, it may be too late.

Aguayo agrees and says programs that offer free or affordable education fill a gap in the medical system. “To find an intermediary community-based organization like the Y is really groundbreaking,” Aguayo says.

Participants in Boyle Heights pay fees ranging from $29 to $79 for the Diabetes Prevention Program, instead of the $429 standard fee. Grants from the White Memorial Medical Center and of USC subsidize the fees.

Ortiz is grateful to have the opportunity to change her family’s diabetes cycle.

“We have to take care of ourselves, and if we don’t learn how to do that, then it will be very, very hard,” she says.

Where to get help:
Ӣ The Diabetes Center At White Memorial Hospital
1720 Cesar E. Chavez Avenue East Building, First Floor Los Angeles, CA 90033
Phone 323-307-8921
Ӣ Diabetes Prevention Program (Programs starting again in March 2015)
@ The Wellness Center YMCA
1200 N State St, Los Angeles, CA 90033
Phone (213) 481-5668
@ Weingart East Los Angeles YMCA
2900 Whittier Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90023
Phone (323) 260-7005
Ӣ American Diabetes Association (
1200 N. State Street, Los Angeles, CA 90033
Phone (213)674-8831
Ӣ Latino Diabetes Association
145 N 5th St, Montebello, CA 90640
Phone (323) 837-9869

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