The terms "health" and "wellness" are often used interchangeably. And while they certainly coexist under the well-being umbrella, they are indeed different.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being," while wellness aims to enhance said well-being. According to WHO, social, economic and environmental factors can affect a person's health, but maintenance and improvement depend on their efforts and lifestyle choices.
"I live in a Mexican community, and it's really heavy on fattening foods and fast food restaurants," she said.
According to the CDC, nearly 1 in 5 school-age children in the U.S. are obese, with Hispanic and black students affected at higher rates than their white peers (14.1 percent) – 25.8 percent and 22 percent, respectively – and that trend continues into adulthood. University of Chicago researchers also found a connection between elevated blood pressure and obesity and growing up in neighborhood with a high violent crime rate.
Some local groups, such as the Healthy Schools Campaign, are working to shift these trends. The nonprofit has hosted a cooking competition among Chicago high school students since 2007. Villegas participated in November. She said her father has Type 2 diabetes, which has made healthy food choices a struggle for their family.
"It's been really hard for him because he can't eat certain foods anymore, and he's always going in and out the hospital, getting checkups," she said. So Villegas, a member of the culinary program at Juarez, brings the healthy recipes she learns at school home to her family. She said she doesn't want others to endure what her father has simply because they lack healthy food options.
"I don't want to see people struggling at finding things to eat because of how heavy the foods are now," she said. In the Cooking Up Change challenge, Villegas and her teammates had to create a meal on a $1.40 budget. The meal by the winner (not the Juarez team) was featured on the CPS lunch menu.
Sara Porter, Healthy Schools Campaign vice president of external affairs, said the organization focuses on low-income communities of color.
"In order for students to make the most of their time at school, they need to be able to focus," she said. "We know there are many variables around that, and we want to help remove as many of those variables as we can – that connection between health and education and wellness and education is a very important one. All of our programs have that focus in mind."
But wellness must go beyond food, says Camesha Jones, a social worker and founder of Sista Afya, a mental wellness support organization for millennial black women. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder while getting her degree, Jones said she didn't have support or information specific to her experience as a black woman. She created the community-based organization so others didn't have to navigate the health care system alone and without guidance.
Among the mental wellness challenges Jones believes the black community faces: representation, affordability and accessibility of mental health resources. According to Center for Promise researchers at Boston University, fear and inequitable access to social supports put young people of color at increased risk for poor health outcomes. They surveyed young people in five cities; those in Chicago specifically cited neighborhood safety as a major concern.
"Because we are in survivor mode, mental well-being is something that we don't think about, but sometimes we know that our survival mode is causing an impact on our mental well-being," said the 27-year-old Hyde Park resident. "There are a lot of people identifying that they are having challenges with mental wellness, but they're verbalizing it in a different way. "I think, sometimes, young people might not understand that not taking care of your mental well-being can actually defer you from living out your fullest potential."
The same holds true for physical wellness. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released its 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines: Children 3 to 5 years old should be physically active throughout the day; kids 6 to 17 should have an hour per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
"This is not just public health people trying to put out a message so that maybe people will do it. This is based in data. Doing some amount of moderate amount physical activity has health benefits," said University of Illinois at Chicago associate professor of kinesiology and nutrition Dr. David Marquez, one of 17 experts on the HHS advisory committee. "In trying to think about how can people in challenging environments make 'wellness' happen: Work it into your daily life," he said.
Pilsen resident Cesar Ramirez, 17, who also participated in the Cooking Up Change competition, said "wellness" means being stable in your environment with the resources you have – and learning to improve and improvise when you have to.
"It doesn't take a lot to live a healthy lifestyle," said Dr. Gameli Dekayie, an ER physician and co-founder of Quench Wellness in the South Loop. "It may seem overwhelming. It may seem like a lot of choices. But when you really think of it as making one choice at a time – a meal at a time, a night's sleep at a time, a cup of water at a time – it just becomes a habit. And that's what we're really trying to preach and practice more and more. If you make it a habit, it becomes a lifestyle, and you don't even realize that you're doing it. It just becomes part of who you are."