Healthy Kids program combats an epidemic: The impact of obesity on children
“There’s a lack of awareness about how bad obesity is,” said Robert Shin, MD, medical director of the Weight Loss Center at CAMC. “It’s the #1 killer in society, but it’s still treated more like a shameful problem than a medical issue. We need to break the barriers of obesity and understand that it is one of the most serious health problems facing this generation and future generations.”
The health of future generations is what concerns pediatrician Jamie Jeffrey the most.
“When I started seeing the complications of obesity in my pediatric patients around 10 years ago, I had to re-learn about ‘adult’ diseases like type II diabetes, hypertension and sleep apnea,” said Jamie Jeffrey, MD, medical director of the Children’s Medicine Center at CAMC. “Type 2 diabetes wasn’t something I learned about in my pediatrics residency because at that time children didn’t get it – only adults did. Likewise, hypertension was rare in kids, but now is very common because of the obesity epidemic.”
The American Heart Association reports that one in three American children and teens is overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate in 1963, which is causing a broad range of health problems in children that previously weren’t seen until adulthood such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Plus, there are the psychological effects: obese children are more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image and depression.
“Obesity is the biggest public health threat facing today’s children,” Jeffrey said. “If you make their health better, you make their lives better.”
So Jeffrey created the Healthy Kids Pediatric Weight Management Program at CAMC, which is a family-based, medically-supervised program that encourages a healthy diet and active lifestyle for children and teens 5 to 18 years old.
“We encourage making healthy changes by setting small goals each week. It’s all about taking baby steps to make change easy and permanent,” Jeffrey said. “Children go through a complete medical evaluation to identify complications of being overweight, and they are guided through every step of the program by a doctor, dietitian and nurse educator.”
The program consists of three tracks that vary in length and intensity.
“We do a thorough screening before enrolling a child and family into the group session,” Jeffrey said. “We talk with parents about their concerns, we talk with the children about what motivates and concerns them, and we find out if it’s the right time for the family to make this commitment.”
After the initial consultation, the doctor and family chooses which track best suits their needs: a consult track that involves just a few visits; a monthly track that includes meeting with a doctor, dietitian, and nurse educator in addition to weekly weigh-ins; or an intensive one-year multidisciplinary track.
“The one-year program includes weekly visits for the first eight weeks, individual sessions with team members, group nutrition and exercise sessions, and weekly weigh-ins. After the first eight weeks, children attend monthly sessions for the remainder of the year,” Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey uses intrinsic motivation techniques to encourage participants. Rather than telling children what to do, she helps them stay focused on their goals and what motivates them.
“During the screening process we ask the kids, ‘What’s in it for you? How will you be better if you lose weight?’ For girls, it’s clothes and bathing suits. For boys, it’s sports activities and keeping up with friends that are more active. So we help them stay focused on what’s important to them.”
Participants have an individual responsibility to set their own goals and work toward them. They fill out nutritional food logs, physical activity logs, look at food labels, and participate in exercise programs designed specifically for them.
“We meet at the CAMC Weight Loss Center where there’s a gym with kid-size equipment, like an elliptical machine, and we make exercise fun,” Jeffrey said.
Family support is also key, because it often takes changing a family’s habits to help children be successful.
“We have to teach children to be healthy at home, which means making better food choices at the grocery store, planning ahead for meals, learning about portion control, sending healthier snacks to school, and making healthier food choices when eating out,” Jeffrey said. “After kids get to a certain age if all they’ve eaten are fries, pizza and milkshakes, all of a sudden parents think they have picky eaters. But if that’s what kids are used to eating, that’s all they’ll want.”
As a busy working mom of four children herself, Jeffrey practices what she teaches.
“I used to drive through fast food on our way to the pool, dance or soccer, and I noticed my kids gaining weight. So we stopped ordering french fries and sides, which made a difference. We also keep veggie trays in the house to snack on, and we plan our meals ahead instead of choosing fast food all the time. You have to do what works for your schedule, but making small changes can have big results.”
Healthy Kids is also seeing results. Of the last 100 children who went through the multi-disciplinary program, 93 percent of patients lost weight. Their average BMI range also dropped from 34.5 to 32.3 in the first eight weeks.
“We, adults, have demanded a life and environment of convenience and it’s killing our children,” Jeffrey said. “We have to be advocates for them and change it.”
For more information about the Healthy Kids program at CAMC, call (304) 388-2938.