Candy bars, Pop-Tarts and french fries were always on the menu in Ruth Sanchez's daily diet.
For years, the 17-year-old consistently made poor eating choices. "Fast food is what I would eat the most," she recalled.
Ruth, a former Merced Scholars Charter School student, said the two main reasons she turned to fast food were because it was affordable and easy to get.
"You are on the run, and you are going to get something from the $1 menu," she explained. "It's quick and it's the cheapest."
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Not only did Ruth, who weighs 183 pounds, make the wrong choices when it came to eating, she also didn't live an active life.
That's no longer the case. She has made a dramatic change in her habits.
Ruth decided to take a different direction last fall when she enrolled in a weight-management program. The teenager wanted to adopt a better lifestyle to reduce the risk of developing a chronic illness as an adult.
"I was tired of my problem -- my weight," she said. She wanted a new start.
Ruth began to pay attention to what she ate and started exercising. Low-fat foods, vegetables and fruits now make up a big part of her meals.
"I never even knew there was such a big variety" of vegetables, she marveled. Her favorites include lettuce, tomatoes and avocados.
Ruth has lost 21 pounds since fall, when she changed her eating habits, and she relishes the results.
"It feels really good," she said. "I feel so much better about myself."
Ruth exchanged candy for peanuts, carrots and apples with peanut butter. "Now I know what I'm eating," she added.
The change hasn't been easy. "The most challenging part for me was probably exercising. To just get up and do something," she said.
Ruth sometimes feels pressure to lose weight because her younger brother, Daniel, is athletic and thin. At the same time, she said, the family competition encourages her to continue to eat healthy and to exercise more.
"Because I understand the whole problem of being overweight," she said. "This particular lifestyle and ways of eating have helped me, and I hope other kids can also eat healthier."
Many children in Merced County are obese, and she hopes others will follow in her footsteps.
Ruth's mother, Amy Ponce, said it's alarming to know that the county is home to many children who are obese.
"As parents, we are concerned," she said.
Many teenagers continue to make poor decisions. "They eat microwave food and sit in front of the TV," she said. "If we are able to educate them, we as parents and children can work together to help fight obesity."
Teens aren't eating healthy and they aren't learning about the long-term health consequences of their overindulgence, Ponce said. Ponce admitted she's partly responsible for her daughter being overweight, especially because she's a single mother.
"It does have its toll," she said. "Was that a factor? Absolutely."
Ponce took on the role of two parents. She said she works all the time, and as a result, they often would eat out because Ponce didn't have much time to cook at home. There was little nutrition in her daughter's diet.
Chuck Newcomb, a registered dietitian in the Central Valley, said he wasn't sure if growing up in a single- parent home increases the chances of being overweight. However, he said, in such a situation, children and teens more often are left alone at home and they're able to make their own decisions on what they want to eat.
And they'll often wind up choosing more fatty and sugary foods. "The consequences are inconsequential to them a lot of times," Newcomb said.
Ponce said she's happy her daughter is making the right choices. Mom is always by her side to cheer her on.
"I'm just proud to have a daughter who is concerned about her eating habits," she added. "I can tell it's hard because she has learned to say 'no.' "
Ponce said there's a lack of education in the schools to teach youngsters about the long-term health effects of not eating the right foods.
"It's a big problem," she said. "Once they become in a deep stage of eating bad, it leads them to make even worse choices in life."
Some 34 percent of residents in Merced County are obese, according to a 2010 UCLA Health Policy Research study. The county has the second-highest rate in the state, the study found.
Diabetes is one of the most common illnesses people develop as a result of being overweight or obese.
From 2006 to 2008, the average number of deaths from diabetes in Merced County was one out of every 5,216 people, according to the Merced County Health Status Profile 2010.
Out of the 58 counties in the state, Merced County ranked as one of the counties with the highest diabetes mortality rate, according to the status profile.
But Ruth has started on the long path to healthy eating habits and, hopefully, better health.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 388-6507 or firstname.lastname@example.org.