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Healthy-Eating Expert

Teen nutrition coach Haile Thomas empowers kids by teaching them how to take charge of their health

COURTESY OF CHARMAINE THOMAS

VEGGIE POWER: Haile encourages kids to make healthier choices.

Haile Thomas, 17, has always loved food and cooking. She’s helped her mom out with preparing family meals since she was 5. But her culinary interests took on a new importance at the age of 8, when her dad was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This disease affects how the body processes sugar and other carbohydrates.

Haile learned that changing her family’s diet could improve her dad’s condition. They started eating more veggies and cutting out sugary drinks and processed food. Soon, her dad’s diabetes was gone—without the use of medication. “That taught me how powerful food can be, both to hurt and to heal,” says Haile.

The teen, who grew up in Arizona and now lives in New Windsor, New York, wanted to spread the word about the power of eating well. When she was 12, Haile launched her own organization—Healthy Active Positive Purposeful Youth, or HAPPY—to do just that. Through HAPPY, Haile provides workshops on nutrition and culinary education for elementary and middle school students.

Last year, Haile became the youngest certified integrative nutrition health coach in the U.S. “I wanted to get certified to make sure no one wondered if I knew what I was talking about,” she says. Haile spoke with Science World about helping others live healthfully.

How did you go from discussing nutrition with your family to sharing the importance of healthy eating with others?

At first, I’d see friends eating burgers and potato chips, and I’d be the annoying kid saying, “Put that down—you’re making yourself sick!” The other 10-year-olds would look at me like I was crazy.

I quickly realized that was not a great strategy. So I started making YouTube videos with recipes and ideas for healthy eating. But I really wanted to make learning about nutrition engaging and fun, so I founded HAPPY. We teach kids about plant-based nutrition—focusing on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—and how food can fuel their potential.

COURTESY CNN

FAMILY CHEF: Haile makes a salad with her dad and sister.

How does your organization get kids interested in food and nutrition?

One thing we do is pop-up workshops in schools. One is called Sugar Shockers. We set out sugary beverages and cereals. Kids guess how much sugar is in each serving.

We go through how to read nutrition labels and talk about how too much sugar can negatively affect our health. Kids learn to make homemade granola as a healthier alternative to sugary cereal. We talk about drinking plenty of water, and we make smoothies with fruits and veggies.

We also run weeklong cooking camps where kids learn knife skills and kitchen safety. We teach them about organic food grown without certain chemicals and seasonal eating, which focuses on freshly harvested foods. We tour farms, and the campers do some cooking for themselves.

What are your most important nutrition tips?

Look at what’s in your food by reading ingredient lists. A jar of tomato sauce might not just have tomatoes and salt and herbs in it. It might have a lot of sugar too. A product’s ingredients might also list chemicals you don’t recognize. Research to find out what they are.

Developing awareness of what you’re putting into your body often leads to wanting to cook more of your own food. That’s my next tip: Get into the kitchen more. Have fun and be creative when you cook. Try different things. Be open to new ingredients and cuisines. You just might discover a new favorite food.

Do you have any advice for other teens who want to change the world for the better?

If you have a message or something you’d like to stand up for, don’t think your voice is too small to be heard. The more our generation speaks up for what we’re passionate about, the better the world will be.

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