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Childhood Obesity: Mom's Experience

“My oldest son was always a big kid; at age two, he weighed 39 lbs. At age 10, he tried Weight Watchers and actually gained a few pounds. It’s not that he ate bad food or fast food, but his portion sizes were simply too big, with adult-sized meals and huge snacks. Summer 2009 he was excited to try an overnight weight loss camp -- Camp Shane in Ferndale, NY -- and opted for the full nine-week program. He was 11 and left for camp at 5’1” and 180 lbs. Through a combination of portion control, nutritional education and tons of physical exercise -- swimming, boot camp-style workouts -- he lost 29 lbs! When he came home, we took him shopping for nice clothes and for the first time, they fit him well.

What really helped was the at-home eating plan devised by the camp’s nutritionist. It works like a traffic light system: Foods are classified as green (proteins and carbs, up to 100 calories each), yellow (occasional indulgences like mac and cheese) or red (rare treats, like cake, limited to twice/week). Based on his metabolic rate, our son gets about 1,500 calories a day, divided into three meals and two snacks/day, made up of 11 ‘greens’ and unlimited fruits, veggies and fat-free cheese. If he wants a yellow, he needs to swap it for two greens. Lunch might be cold cuts in a pita, sugar-free pudding and a bowl of strawberries. He also works out and does track and field at school.

Now he’s 12 and at 5’6”, 140 lbs., you’d never know he’d had a weight problem. It really jumpstarted him and helped him change his habits. He’s more athletic, faster, happier, he takes pride in what he wears. And he’s excited to return to the camp again this summer.”

- Melissa Campbell, 39, Millburn, NJ, mom to two sons, age 9 and 12 and one daughter, age 6

“When my daughter was 18 months old, her lines on the doctor’s height/weight record were off the charts. I felt awful but I thought, ‘I know how to feed my child’ and denied the problem for a few more years. It was hard – she didn’t look like other girls her age and I’d have to buy clothes three to four sizes bigger and hem them. Meanwhile, at age four, my third son was having issues, too (the older two were normal weight). When my sister-in-law, a nurse, said she was worried that her six-year-old niece could be pre-diabetic, I knew I had to get serious, so we started the PHIT Kids (Promoting Health in Teens and Kids) program at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO.

My son and I would go together (my daughter was too young to enroll) and we'd both weigh in, kept food journals and set a small weekly goal, like skipping dessert or exercising three times per week. I started feeding the entire family more fruits and vegetables. One morning, I put out strawberries, wheat toast and an egg for breakfast instead of Pop Tarts and I was sure they’d complain… but they just ate it. I felt like it was my fault they were overweight because it was just that easy: They ate what I put in front of them, like chicken nuggets and mac and cheese. We switched from 2% milk to skim and drank less soda. No more chocolate syrup or Little Debbie snack cakes. My older son, who is almost underweight, was resentful, but the pediatrician explained, ‘Just because you're skinny doesn't mean you need a candy bar.’

I'm overweight and I know the teasing that can happen. You can't wear cute clothes. I knew that's what was ahead for my daughter and I wanted to protect my kids. I felt guilty that I hadn't taken the time to plan the perfect meals, or didn't say no to extra treats. But now we’re making healthy changes: My son looks healthier; he didn’t lose weight but he grew taller. My daughter is starting softball soon and when she enrolls in PHIT Kids, the whole family will participate.”

-Shelli Cornell, 42, Kansas City, MO, mom to 3 sons age 10, 13, 16 and one daughter, age 7

“When my son started gaining weight around age eight, my pediatrician said he’d grow out of it, but he just got larger and larger. By fourth grade, he had a 36-inch waist, despite the fact that he exercised all the time, playing basketball, soccer, baseball and more.  He dieted, we sent him to weight loss camp, even took him to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, to check for medical causes (he’s adopted so we’re unsure of his biological parents’ weight) but nothing worked. After years of unsuccessful attempts and unhappiness, we found the New Hope Pediatric & Adolescent Weight Management Project at the University of Illinois-Chicago. We discussed surgical options and decided on the gastric band procedure. On the day of surgery, he was 16 years old, 5’10” and 365 lbs, and that was after losing 60 pounds for the surgery. He wound up losing 170 lbs in the next 10-and-a-half months and began his senior year of high school weighing 190 lbs. Emotionally, he has blossomed -- he has a greater sense of belonging, grew more social, went to his prom. But he also had to remember who were his real friends were, as some of the kids who had teased him for being overweight now suddenly wanted to be friends with him, and that was difficult for him.

We were told if our son had kept gaining weight at the rate he had, he wouldn’t see age 25. Today, he’s 19 and enrolled in culinary school. Some people have expressed concern over such a drastic step as surgery, but he was past the point of prevention. It’s a treatment. If your child needed glasses, you’d get him glasses. We treated him the same way you’d treat a diabetic or a child with cancer.”

-Jacqueline Downey, 56, Columbus, Ohio, mom to one son, age 19