By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Maryflor Peña (center) with her family at her middle school graduation this summer.

Maryflor Peña (center) with her family at her middle school graduation this summer.

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The weight gain started when Maryflor Peña was in sixth grade. She was eating more of everything — more pasta, more pancakes, more tacos. She’d gained 65 pounds by the time she was in seventh grade.

Tests at a checkup showed her 12-year-old body suffered from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a fatty liver — ailments common in overweight and obese children and adults. A pediatric specialist told Maryflor and her parents the writing was on the wall: Maryflor had to start eating healthy and exercising or would be doomed to a future of heart disease and diabetes.

To help their daughter, Ana Villalva and Marco Antonio Peña enlisted the support of their five other children. Everyone in the Phoenix, Arizona, family would be expected to get behind the big lifestyle changes coming their way.

“We always discuss things as a family,” said Ana, a 44-year-old stay-at-home mom.

Maryflor was grateful for her parents’ encouragement. Her mother’s positive words kept her on track.

“She would always tell me, ‘OMG, you’re losing weight,’” said the 14-year-old high school freshman.

Maryflor’s commitment motivated her parents and siblings to get healthy, too.

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Two years ago, the Peñas lived a different life. They did not exercise. They rarely ate fruits or vegetables. Dinners included spaghetti and meatballs, huevos rancheros, hot dogs and ham tortas, always with a glass of soda. On cold nights, they’d have hot chocolate and pan dulce.

Ana and Marco tried half-heartedly to add vegetable dishes to the family’s meals, but the children wouldn’t eat them. So the couple gave up.

Memories of growing up in Mexico in extreme poverty still haunt Marco, a 45-year-old cook. A native of the state of Guerrero, Marco was raised in a family of farmers. He recalled waking up hungry and going to bed hungry.

“Because of that degree of poverty, we don’t have many means to decide what we’re going to eat,” he said. “What we want is to have something to put in our mouths.”

Marco was in charge of most of the cooking when Maryflor began gaining weight. He cooked what his children wanted and let them eat as much as they wanted because he didn’t want them to go hungry.

Maryflor Peña (left) with her sister, Lizet, before the teenager lost weight.

Maryflor Peña (left) with her sister, Lizet, before the teenager lost weight.

But after finding out their daughter was staring down serious health problems, the couple didn’t give their children a choice. This time, they had to eat their vegetables.

The first thing to go was soda. They also stopped buying juice boxes, chips and cookies, and cut back on tortillas and pan dulce. The family started eating fish, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables. The kids began carrying a water bottle everywhere they went.

Maryflor said the first few months on her new diet were hard. She craved Cheetos, Chips Ahoy and the other junk food she regularly ate. But she wanted to prove to herself and everyone else that she could do it. She even inspired a cousin to start eating healthier.

Exercise is now a part of the family’s daily routine. Maryflor works out using exercise videos, and her routine also includes jumping jacks and running around her backyard. Her parents try to make it to the gym every day and her younger brothers play soccer when they come home from school.

Shedding the extra weight has helped relieve the emotional and physical toll it was taking. At school, Maryflor was picked on by a classmate who called her fat and chunky. At home, she was grumpy and complained of aches and pains. What hurt the fashion-conscious teen most was that she couldn’t fit into clothes she liked. At one point, she wore a woman’s size 10.

“My dream was to be skinny and have fun, stylish clothes,” she said.

Maryflor would still be a statistic if she had not changed her habits. Hispanics have the highest rate of obesity among U.S. girls ages 2 to 19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-two percent of Hispanic girls are obese, compared with 21 percent of black girls and 15 percent of white girls.

Overall, a quarter of U.S. Hispanic children ages 6 to 11 are obese.

“That is also why [the entire family is] trying to correct the way we eat,” said Ana, who watched her parents struggle with diabetes. Her mother eventually lost her sight and ability to walk.

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At the Phoenix Children’s Hospital clinic where Maryflor was treated, dietitian Candace Johnson showed Maryflor and her mother how to eat proper portions and how to prepare their favorite dishes differently. She suggested, for example, swapping brown rice for white rice, eating more chicken and less beef, baking instead of frying and eating corn tortillas instead of flour.

Watching Maryflor “take the reins and just say, ‘Hey, I’m going to take control of my health and I’m going to do this and have fun with it,’ was inspiring for me,” Johnson said.

Maryflor talks excitedly about her smoothie concoctions. Her turkey and ham sandwiches are packed with spinach, tomatoes and seaweed. She makes her own trail mix, and regularly searches the web for photos of colorful meals the family can prepare.

Maryflor Peña after her weight loss.

Maryflor Peña after her weight loss.

The clinic’s pediatric endocrinologist Micah L. Olson, M.D., said many of the families who come to the clinic do not have the resources they need to make changes, or they may not be motivated to stick with changes.

“The degree of motivation of the parents is one of the biggest determinants of how well the kids do,” he said. “We couldn’t be more proud of Maryflor and her parents.”

These days, Maryflor is looking forward to her quinceañera party next spring. The aspiring fashion designer wants to wear a purple and silver dress.

Maryflor has lost about 65 pounds, and her mother has lost 15 pounds. But the teen wants overweight kids to know that “even losing five pounds could [help you] feel way better about yourself.”

The Peña family’s one-for-all and all-for-one approach has been the recipe for Maryflor’s success.

“I see the great effort she has made,” Ana said. “I am proud of her.”

Photos courtesy of the Peña family