By Carita Rizzo
Chef LaLa took some time out of her day to talk to Savvy Miss about the importance of good nutrition and raising awareness about diabetes, a disease that affects almost 20 million Americans.
Multitasking wonderwoman Chef Lala is not just the person to turn to for a good enchilada. She is a nutritionist specializing in children’s needs and obesity, a spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association and the author of the cookbook Latin Lover Lite.
Some days, just finding the time to sit down is hard enough for her, yet she took some time out of her day to talk to Savvy Miss about the importance of good nutrition and raising awareness about diabetes, a disease that affects almost 20 million Americans.
SM: Why is diabetes so close to your heart?
Lala: Three of my four grandparents died of complications from diabetes. My father now suffers from diabetes. Food is so closely related to the disease and that’s my business—that’s what I do! I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what you can and cannot do [when you have diabetes], so education is key. I think empowering the community is very important.
SM: How do you raise awareness?
Lala: I teach [people] how to cook. I do keynote speaking for Speaking of Women’s Health to teach [women] about staying in school and empowering them with education. [For the] Discovery Health Channel, I did the National Body Challenge. The people I went in and helped were a Latino family. The gentleman, who was in his thirties, was diabetic and his wife only had her way of cooking. She was taught to fry everything, and that happens a lot because that’s how you are brought up. So I taught them a couple of steps that you can take to make sure your choices are better without losing all the flavor. And they loved it! I also talked to them about the repercussions if they didn’t change.
SM: Why is it so hard to change people’s diets?
Lala: My mom used to show us how much she loved us by cooking a great meal. So the best moments of my life happened around the table. [Most people] associate eating with this wonderful love and passion for the family. We don’t want to be on a diet. We don’t want a bland, awful meal. [Healthy Latin food] does seem like it is a contradiction in terms. But even in my book, I didn’t change any recipes. All I did was take what my mom was already making, did a nutritional analysis and showed that it could be healthy.
SM: So how has this involvement impacted your personal life?
Lala: Oh, my God, when you see someone’s eyes change because they learn something new, that’s just so, so powerful! I just did a [program] for Step Up Women’s Network, where I was able to teach [girls from the YMCA of East Los Angeles] about nutritional self-respect for their bodies. At the very end, they were asked what they liked the best about the whole workshop and I think 90% said that they “loved meeting Lala.”
SM: What struck a chord with them?
Lala: Some of them liked the fact that I was one of them—that I grew up where they grew up, in East LA, and I’ve become what I wanted to become. I told them success isn’t measured by the money you make, but by doing what you love. I walked out of there like I was walking on clouds, knowing that these girls had a mentor and could be like, “If she can do it, I can do it, too!”
SM: You must be such an inspiration to them.
Lala: They’re an inspiration to me! Sometimes it’s very hard to be philanthropic, I’m not going to lie to you. You have to understand that I was up at 3:00 to catch an airplane. I’m lugging a child around. I have four or five different projects going on at a time. I just finished catering. I have my husband and my household to take care of. I need to wash my car. And I’m like, “Oh, my God, when am I going to get around to it?” So to [step away] from all that and say, “Okay, I’m going to go speak to this group of people I’ve never met, and I don’t even know who they are and who knows if I’ll ever even cross paths with them again,” is not always the easiest thing to do when you’re in the middle of a busy life.
SM: So how do you do it?
Lala: When you see that you do change someone’s life and that there is that need for knowledge, then you go, “Okay, this is why I do it!” I had one girl come up to me and say, “I just lost my sister to diabetes, and I wanted to come up to you and hug you and thank you so much for making a difference—and hopefully someone else won’t lose her sister.” How could you not drop everything in your life and make a difference?