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Juan Mendez – Walking Away the Pounds

A success story to celebrate American Diabetes Month

By: Amy Gredler, Multnomah County Health Department 


Juan Mendez is the same person he was eight months ago. He just doesn’t look like it. The 57-year-old Mendez, a Program Coordinator with the Multnomah County Health Department’s STD/HIV Prevention Program, has lost 106 pounds since last March.


Mendez says he slowly gained weight after he left the Army, married, had children, and went to graduate school all while working. A lifetime of drinking soda and eating snacks, working at a desk and not exercising added to the extra weight. By last March, he had been overweight for more than ten years and weighed 340 pounds.


juan pic from a few years ago Juan now

Juan Mendez (center) at a health event with

co-workers Miguel Canales and David Zambrano

a few years ago was tired of being tired, overweight, and borderline diabetic.

Juan today, enjoying the energy that healthy

eating and regular walking has given him.

(Check out his walking shoes at the ready

under his desk.)


He was hardly alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report more than one-third of adults are obese, and  one in four Latino adults. The excess weight puts people at higher risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer.


Diabetes – a problem with the body that causes blood sugar levels to rise higher than normal – has increased steadily among Americans since the mid 1990s. Today, about 26 million Americans have type 2 diabetes. Over time, the disease can harm one’s eyes, kidneys, nerves, or heart.


Diabetes disproportionately affects communities of color, especially the Latino population. Latinos are twice as likely to develop diabetes as non-Hispanic Whites, and a higher percentage of Mexican Americans are diagnosed with diabetes than other ethnic groups.


At a presentation earlier this year, Dr. Andrew Ahmann, Director of the Harold Schnitzer Diabetes Health Center at Oregon Health and Sciences University noted that a combination of an inactive lifestyle and genetic predisposition causes the Latino population to have more occurrences of obesity, which is a large contributing factor to many diseases including diabetes.


Mendez was borderline diabetic when, he was inspired to change.  “On March 4, 2014 I was sitting at my desk, and I just said to myself, ‘I need to lose weight,’“ says Mendez. “I was tired of being overweight, tired, and borderline diabetic.”  


A life-long soda drinker, Mendez started by eliminating soda and other sugar from his diet and taking short walks.   He sets calorie goals based on his height and weight. A big technology fan, Mendez started tracking everything he ate via a smartphone app called My Fitness Pal. He also joined various fitness forums on Reddit, including Fitness, Get Motivated, and Lose It, to get support.  


Mendez started walking every day, slowly working up to more and more activity. Instead of spending his lunch and breaks at his desk, he’d take a walk outside. He started riding the MAX and getting off at a stop up to two miles from his office to fit in exercise before and after work. In bad weather, he uses an employee fitness facility across from his office building and uses the treadmill to get in his steps.


“I found a ton of online support,” says Mendez. “Reading people’s stories and their efforts to overcome obstacles has helped me. My wife (from El Salvador) and my sons have been extremely supportive and a huge positive reinforcement for me every day.”  He also adds his co-workers and his Facebook friends to the number of people who continue to support him.


A few months into his weight loss journey, his office co-workers purchased a Fitbit device – an activity tracker – for him as a surprise. Now he can easily track the five to eight miles that he walks each day. The device syncs with his My Fitness Pal app and works well to keep him on track with his eating and activity.


His personal program includes a diet with minimal sugar, low carbohydrates, lots of vegetables, lots of water, no sugary drinks, and no diet substitutes.  The results are obvious.


“Every day is better than the best. In March, a short walk would leave me hurting. Today, a five mile quick pace walk is an easy task,” he says.


Mendez, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York and Puerto Rico, says his doctor loves his results. Prior to starting his new eating and exercise routine Mendez’s diabetes test numbers (HbA1c) had him in the diabetic range. As of September, his numbers were well out of the dangerous range and into the normal range.  


Even a small weight loss can make a difference. Doctors say that an overweight person who weighs 160 pounds and loses eight to 16 pounds (5 to 10 percent of their weight) can reduce their risk of developing diabetes by almost 60 percent.


“Diabetes affects all of us. If you think you have a risk, speak to your doctor. Get tested. Take advantage of your health insurance if you have it,“ he says.


For those interested in making changes, Mendez advises, “Take baby steps. Start with a short walk and go from there. No in-person support? There are a ton of online support groups that can help. Experiment, ask for advice (including your doctor’s), and find the diet that works for you. Take advantage of what your health plan or your employer has to offer. “


November is American Diabetes Month. Learn more about diabetes and your risk