Children show obesity can be overcome with the help of their families
Bouncing higher and higher on a trampoline, Breanna Bond reached out, touched her toes and flashed her mother a grin almost as wide as her outstretched arms.
The midair move marked another fitness milestone for the 10-year-old Clovis, Calif. girl, who seven months ago weighed 186 pounds and was so out of shape she struggled when stooping to tie a shoe.
More than 50 pounds lighter and limber, Breanna showed off her trampoline skills on a recent afternoon. “Look, I’m going to do a flip,” she said, turning upside down and landing on her feet.
“She just inspires me every day,” Breanna’s mother, Heidi Bond, said of her daughter’s efforts.
In the central San Joaquin Valley, Calif., where more than 40 percent of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders are overweight or obese, it’s easy to overlook the children who have toned up and slimmed down. But they’re proof that childhood obesity can be beat, and they have lessons to share.
The formula the children have followed to become healthy and fit – eating smaller portions and exercising more – has long been proven to work. But no child would be overweight if living by those two principles were simple or easy, nutrition experts say. Children and their parents say bluntly that losing weight is tough. In the end, though, the struggle produces healthier children, making the calorie counting worth it, they say.
Alexander Flores, 16, of Fresno, Calif., has dropped almost 30 pounds off his 5-foot, 9-inch frame in the past few months, going from 209 pounds to 180 pounds. “When he weighs himself, he’s ecstatic,” said Alexander’s mother, Melissa Flores.
Alexander works out every day, lifting weights and exercising, she said. He also has stopped eating late at night, and he eats smaller portions.
But in the beginning, it was hard to motivate her son, Flores said. It wasn’t until his doctor warned him he was at risk for health problems that he began pushing himself, she said.
Alexander’s not alone: Health experts say they are seeing children with weight-caused problems, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and joint problems usually seen only in adults.
Flores also has made changes to help Alexander. She added more whole grains, fruits and vegetables to the family diet. Luckily, Alexander seldom drank sodas or snacked on candy and chips, she said, but now he drinks fat-free milk. “The kids love it,” she said. “To them, there’s no difference.”
Doing it together
Losing weight is a family affair, everyone agrees.
Some parents want to put overweight children on diets, but that doesn’t work, said Tina Canales, a registered dietitian at the Clinica Sierra Vista office of the Women Infants and Children nutrition program. “It has to be the whole family eating healthier and exercising.”
When city of Fresno Parks and Recreation enrolled 10- to 13-year-olds in a free six-week Healthy Lifestyles Fitness Program this summer, parent attendance at a twice-a-week nutrition class was mandatory.
That made a difference, said Sara Bosse, senior program manager for the University of California CalFresh nutrition education program, which partners with the city to run the summer camp. “You’ll have parents with weak moments not wanting to employ what they’ve learned, and children are going to have weak moments, but they end up encouraging each other.”
Julie and Jeff Pittenger began cooking more at their Fresno home when son Jared, 10, attended the fitness camp this summer. It paid off: Jared, at 5 feet, 7 inches, weighed almost 211 pounds when the six-week camp started and ended the camp weighing 202 pounds. Dietitians say a weight loss of between 1 and 3 pounds per month is considered a healthy pace for an overweight child.
It had become routine for the Pittengers to go out to restaurants or grab fast food three to four times a week. “Now, we’re lucky if it’s three to four times a month,” Jeff Pittenger said.
Jared learned to like vegetables at camp, and the family has added more fruits and vegetables when cooking at home.
His parents also serve less food to their son. They used to give Jared large portions at a meal “and hope he’d stop when he was full,” Jeff Pittenger said. “Now, we serve him less and if he’s not full, he can ask for more.”
Likewise, the entire Whittle family of Fresno has become more conscious of what they eat since Jackson Whittle, 13, and Bhayli Whittle, 10, attended the city’s fitness camp this summer.
The girls’ mother, Kay Jackson, has substituted ground turkey for ground beef, added more whole wheat foods to the diet and is a more careful shopper, reading the fat content on food labels.
She’s also brought her daughters into the kitchen, which used to be her domain. They help her grocery shop and cook. “When they cook the foods, they tend to eat more of the vegetables,” Jackson said.
Bond, the Clovis mother, has taught Breanna how to make a low-fat pizza and other healthy meals.
For Breanna – who dropped 56 pounds in seven months – the family’s diet had to change, Bond said. They could no longer have dinners of enchiladas, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy. Instead, they switched to chicken breasts, couscous, fresh steamed squash with no butter and salads with lemon juice for dressing.
Breanna is limited to a daily fat intake of 20 grams. While it sounds harsh, Bond said, it’s really not. For example, she can have cereal with fat-free milk for breakfast and low-fat pizza slices with fruit for lunch. For dinner, there’s chicken tacos with lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro and low-fat cheese on steamed tortillas.
Without the diet change, Bond said, Breanna would weigh more than 200 pounds today. In kindergarten, she weighed 100 pounds, and each year since had gained 20 pounds, reaching 186 pounds by age 9. Now, at 130 pounds and 5 feet, 1 inch, she has 15 more pounds to go to reach her goal weight of 115, Bond said.
It doesn’t take many extra calories to cause a weight gain, said Kelly Eichmann, a registered dietitian in Clovis. “Even as small as 200 calories more than you need every single day can (add) about 20 pounds of fat-weight gain in a calendar year.”
Exercise part of plan
Portion control coupled with exercise is key to losing weight, nutrition experts say. An inactive girl between ages 9 and 13 needs only about 1,600 calories a day, Eichmann said. For a sedentary boy, it’s 1,800. Active girls need 2,200 calories a day and active boys 2,600.
But the definition of “active child” comes as a surprise to some parents, Eichmann said. It means at least 60 minutes a day of moderate physical activity or the equivalent of walking more than three miles per day at 2 to 4 mph, she said.
The fitness camp got Jared Pittenger moving.
“We did a lot of exercise at the camp, like 15-second drills and ultimate crunches,” he said. “But my favorite part was when we played dodge ball.”
Dodge ball was No. 1 among most campers, according to Pam Hoffman of the city parks department. The camp’s activities also included nontraditional games, such as volleyball played with beach balls and a grocery-cart shopping race. Many of the campers had never participated in sports, Hoffman said. “So we had to make them fun.”
The campers also were taught Zumba dancing twice a week and got cardiovascular and strength training. Camp counselors exercised alongside the campers.
By BARBARA ANDERSON