Our Story: Latinos Living Well

May 2017

A little exercise, a little cooking, some education about diabetes and a lot of fun: That’s the recipe for “Latinos Living Well,” a research and community based program that leads to behavior change. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offers the free classes to help Iowa’s Latino population learn to control and perhaps even prevent diabetes, a disease for which they are at high risk.

ISU Extension and Outreach has been providing diabetes education for over a decade, but targeting this education to Latinos is a new push, said Sarah Francis, an associate professor and a nutrition and wellness state specialist. And it involves more than merely translating an English curriculum into Spanish. The education is based on the needs and preferences of Latinos.

“We needed to understand their motivators and barriers toward diabetes self-management, as well as their food preferences, so that we could design a program that they would be able to relate to and that would be relevant to their life style,” Francis said.

As a result, “Latinos Living Well” is a diabetes prevention, cooking and nutrition program designed specifically for Latinos living in Iowa, said Mary Krisco, one of the extension human sciences specialists who teach the classes throughout the state.

“We include in that definition people who are perhaps recent immigrants from Latin America or Mexico, or could be first, second or third generation descendants of people who come from those countries,” said Krisco, who specializes in nutrition and wellness.

Making changes every week

“Latinos Living Well” meets two hours per week for four weeks. This schedule is based on research showing that eight hours or more of diabetes education lead to lifestyle changes, knowledge gains and increased self-confidence to change personal behavior, Francis said.

“One of the things people really need when they have a diabetes diagnosis or they fear a diabetes diagnosis, is some hope that living with diabetes is not going to be awful – that they can still eat good food, and they can still have a good time,” Krisco said.

In the classes Latinos can experiment with recipes from their culture that taste good to them and would taste good to their families.

“We try out several recipes a week. People get a kick out of preparing these meals themselves. That’s the only way to find out whether healthy cooking is for you. Can you do it, and when you taste it, does it taste OK? So we do a lot of tasting and comparing,” Krisco said.

“What we’re asking people to do is consider filling more of your plate with low carbohydrate fruits and vegetables, lots of greens, lots of salads, lots of vegetable dishes. That’s the major lifestyle change. But the second one that’s pretty hard to do, especially for older people, is getting 30 minutes of active physical exercise every day,” Krisco said.

“At each class we also do a little exercise and we talk about the importance of planning to fit more physical exercise into a person’s day. Because that’s really important for diabetes prevention,” she said.

“We also teach shopping skills, most particularly, label reading, because we want people to be aware of how many carbohydrates and how many carbohydrate exchanges are in each portion of a food that they buy,” Krisco added.

Reaching all ages

The target audience for “Latinos Living Well” is any adult of Latino descent who is concerned about diabetes prevention or about living with diabetes.

“We have people who are trying hard to live with diabetes, and that’s a big challenge. Once you do have diabetes there still is a whole lot of good in learning how to change eating habits and increase your physical activity. Because if you have diabetes and you don’t take good care of yourself, you can end up with some devastating complications, like kidney disease, blindness or amputations,” Krisco said.

“We have pre-diabetics in our class – people who are beginning to have abnormal glucose levels. They have a chance to stop the disease and reverse it,” she continued.

“I’ve had young people in the class who aren’t even out of college yet, but they’re concerned about it because their grandparents are struggling with diabetes. They want to know how they can help their grandparents. Some of them have parents who are struggling with it. The young people love this idea that they can change eating habits now and avoid a problem way far down the road. Younger people are more likely to have heard that among Latinos the risk for diabetes is higher than it is for non-Latinos,” Krisco said.

Diabetes is not only an issue for Latino individuals, it’s also an issue for their communities, Krisco noted.

“This is one thing we talk about in class. How do we plan our community events? How do we plan our parties? We want to be able to offer healthy choices to our families and to our neighbors when we get together for fiestas, because just like everybody else, Latinos can sometimes get over-dependent on extra-sweet things for celebrations,” Krisco said.

“Most of our students have been like ‘this is great stuff, I’m glad you came along, I’m going to tell my friends about this.’ And of course, as a teacher, that’s what you want,” Krisco said.

Educating a growing population

Iowa’s Latino population is the fastest growing demographic in the state, and Latinos are at higher risk of developing diabetes than any other underrepresented minority group, Francis noted.

“Currently in the U.S., nearly 13 percent of Latinos are diagnosed with diabetes, compared to about 8 percent of non-Latino whites. Rural residing adults have more than 8 percent higher likelihood of being diagnosed with diabetes, compared to urban adults,” Francis said.

“If ISU Extension and Outreach was not providing free diabetes education for rural-residing Latinos, then the prevalence of diabetes and the consequences of undiagnosed diabetes would continue to rise in those underserved areas of our state. ‘Latinos Living Well’ provides rural residing Latinos with research-based education on the lifestyle changes that can lower the risk of developing diabetes and/or lower the severity of diabetes if they currently have it. This will lead to improved quality of life and reduced health care costs later on,” Francis said.

“It’s important for the future of Iowa. We want to have healthy Iowans who can cook healthy foods,” Krisco added.

ISU Extension and Outreach offers “Latinos Living Well” with USDA funding through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Rural Health and Safety Education Grant. The grant’s primary purpose is to improve the lives of community members through research based, community-based interventions that lead to behavior change.


Sarah Francis, Human Sciences Extension and Outreach, 515-294-1456, slfranci@iastate.edu

Mary Krisco, Human Sciences Extension and Outreach, 515-957-5787, mkrisco@iastate.edu

Writer: Laura Sternweis, Advancement, 515-294-0775, lsternwe@iastate.edu