The most recent statistics on childhood obesity in the United States are startling: Nearly 1 in 5 youngsters ages 6 to 19 is obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A study by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center shows the numbers for Louisiana’s children are worse, with 1 in 3 classified as obese.
It was that 2011 study that led doctors at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital to team up with Pennington nutritionists to develop the eight-week “Our Lifestyles, Our Lives” weight management program for children ages 10 and older. The younger kids work in group sessions, while 17- and 18-year-olds work in one-on-one sessions.
“We’re very excited about the program,” said Dr. Patricia Tyson, a pediatric gastroenterologist. “We hold three sessions a year at no cost to the family. We provide a workbook and, at the end, a T-shirt and recipes book.”
Battling childhood obesity is Tyson's passion.
Obese as a child, she knows firsthand the struggle overweight children face. They are bullied and teased more than their normal-weight peers, she said, and are more likely to suffer from social isolation, depression and lower self-esteem. A study by the American Heart Association found a link between obesity and poor school performance and unhealthy or risky behaviors such as alcohol use, tobacco use, premature sexual behavior and inappropriate dieting practices.
Obese children also have a higher risk of chronic health conditions, such as asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, Type 2 diabetes and risk factors for heart disease.
“So many kids struggle with obesity. … It needs to be everybody’s passion,” said Tyson.
“Your child’s pediatrician is the first line of defense,” she continued. “Start a conversation with them and get them to help you find a nutritionist. If that’s not working, the doctor can refer the child to me.”
Participating in the “Our Lifestyles, Our Lives” program requires a dedication on the part of the child and the parents. In fact, the whole family. Participants sign an agreement to that effect.
Parents and siblings are encouraged to participate in all the sessions, which include cooking demonstrations, light to moderate intensity physical activity and behavioral counseling. The program also includes field trips to the grocery store and a fast-food restaurant, so those in the program can put into practice what they’re learning.
The sessions are taught by a multidisciplinary staff led by Tyson that includes pediatricians, clinical psychologist Denise Sellers, dietitians and kinesiology-trained fitness specialists.
“Dietary and lifestyle changes are the most difficult for anyone,” said lead dietitian Rebecca Kusch. “You have to, as a family, rethink what junk food is. Changing people’s minds — that’s the biggest hurdle. We’re introducing new foods and how to cook them.”
Tyson said participants are introduced to the My Plate concept, which makes it simple.
"Half fruits and vegetables, one-fourth protein and one-fourth carbs,” she said. “Switch from refined grains to whole wheat. Snacks need to be fresh fruits and veggies, not processed food. … We have to remind the parent that they are ones who do the grocery shopping, not their child.”
Parents also must encourage their child every day, make sure they’re active and ensure they drink lots of water.
“These children are learning the value of being active, they’re tasting food prepared healthy, and they’re learning healthy tastes good,” said Tyson. “We want them to learn now so they can teach their children healthy living and they, in turn, will teach their kids.”
For more information on the “Our Lifestyles, Our Lives” program, contact the Pediatric Specialty Clinic at (225) 765-8687 or ololchildrens.org.