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Brynn Carrigan, assistant director of Kern County Public Health Services Department, addresses the media about healthy eating habits this Valentine's Day.

Before last week, Mackenzie Starkey considered herself pretty healthy — then she began keeping track of how much sugar she consumed daily.

The results, she said, were shocking.

By the second day, she realized that the Izze Sparkling Fruit Juice drinks of which she had grown so fond were loaded with about 25 grams of sugar — about as much as the American Heart Association recommends in one day for a woman.

“I thought I had more control over what I was choosing,” said Starkey, a Kern County Public Health Services Department marketing and promotions associate. “I was wrong.”

Starkey’s revelation came during the public health department’s internal “sugar shock challenge,” which asked employees to track their sugar intake daily, paying special attention to non-natural added sugars, then take steps to reduce them.

One employee lost seven pounds in the first week by reducing her sugar intake and taking part in small daily activities, like walking around the building during breaks.

“This is all about small steps,” said Starkey, who co-leads the worksite wellness program. “Wellness isn’t a full-time job.”

Now, as Valentine’s Day approaches, Public Health officials are challenging Kern County residents to take part by opting for slightly-less sweets while celebrating Wednesday.

“We often give the gift of love by exchanging chocolate ... The Public Health Services Department challenges you to give the gift of love in a healthier way this year,” Kern County Assistant Public Health Director Brynn Carrigan said, warning that such sugary over-indulgences could lead to obesity, which increases the risk for a host of other chronic conditions, including diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.

Those conditions are prominent locally. Three out of four people living in Kern County are either overweight or obese, according to Kern Public Health Epidemiology Manager Kim Hernandez.

Obesity among adults in Kern County increased almost 30 percent between 2011 and 2016, Hernandez said. The proportion of obese adults in Kern County, she added, is 58 percent higher than the state average.

As a result, people in Kern County are at higher risk of heart disease, stroke and type two diabetes, among other chronic conditions. Those three conditions alone were contributors to more than 7,300 deaths countywide in the past five years, and account for 25 percent of all deaths in Kern County, Hernandez said.

“People do not often visit the emergency room, or get hospitalized, or even die directly from obesity,” Hernandez said. “But obesity increases our risks of many health conditions that can have very severe consequences on an individual and whole community.”

Public Health officials say they suspect people are aware of their unhealthy eating habits, but don’t know how to address them. They set out to change that this week by urging consumers to check nutritional labels for sugar content and launching a #NoSugarAdded campaign.

The point of all this, Starkey said, is to get people to realize how much sugar they consume, then ask them to do something about it.

“What alternatives are there and what can businesses encourage for employees?” Starkey said, pointing to a full-wellness regimen the public health department developed for employees, including desk stretches, 15-minute afternoon dance breaks, educational lunchtime movies that stress good nutrition and recently, an event called “Hail to Kale,” which paid homage to the leafy superfood with a potluck of baked kale chips and a kale banana ice cream.

The public health campaign will include educational sessions to teach people how to identify non-natural sugars added to food items, which the average consumer might not be able to spot. They have names like maltodextrin, mannitol and muscovado.

“If you don’t know what’s on the back of your nutritional labels, how can you identify added sugar?” asked Kern Public Health Nutritionist Aaron Stonelake.

And so what’s one to do on Valentine’s Day, a holiday when half of all gifts to sweethearts are sweet treats?

Public Health officials suggest non- or low-sugar alternatives, like Edible Arrangements, or a “sweet-note bouquet,” which substitutes flowers in a vase for decorative twigs with hand-written love notes attached to each one.

Weaning yourself off a serious sweet tooth? Stonelake suggested dark chocolate with pomegranates as a healthier alternative to milk chocolate or truffles.

Whatever gift you give, health officials said, it’s best to avoid the oversized novelty box of heart-shaped candy packed with copious amounts of sugar.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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