When Angela Long became concerned that her youngest son, Michael, 11, was overweight, she took prudent steps. She cut sugar out of his diet and hired a personal trainer to get him exercising. She wasn’t seeing much progress.
“We essentially tried to put together our own program, but I was never quite sure we were doing enough things or the right things,” she said.
His pediatrician referred her to Dr. Patrice Tyson, a pediatric gastroenterologist with Our Lady of the Lake Physician Group, for her program for overweight youngsters, “Our Lifestyles, Our Lives.” Having completed the 10-week program earlier this year, Long believes it has made a lasting difference.
“I hopefully don’t have to be the food police,” she said. “My son is learning how to make healthy choices and what a balanced meal looks like and what a proper portion size looks like so that I can support him in that. But I don’t have to be responsible for all of his choices, which is awesome because they’re not always with you, and eventually they do grow up. It gets exhausting to always be the one saying no.”
In 2012, Tyson began the program, which she patterned after one she saw when working at a hospital in Cleveland.
“This is probably the No. 1 health crisis for young people and adolescents at this time,” Tyson said. “It’s something that people need to pay more attention to, because it affects them starting now and dictates their lifestyle for the rest of their lives. Are they going to be healthy and happy, or are they going to be overweight, depressed and have a whole host of other problems that come along with that? What we know now is a lot of the changes we thought only started later in life actually start in younger kids if they are overweight or obese.”
The children admitted to the program are referred because their body mass index is 30 or higher, or at the 95 percentile for their age. Some of them already have high blood pressure, diabetes or sleep apnea.
The program begins with a physical exam, and the group — including parents — meets for 90 minutes on Thursdays to learn about nutrition and exercise. There are two field trips — one to a grocery store to learn how to read product labels and make healthy food choices, and another to a Subway restaurant to learn how to avoid extra calories when eating out.
Nutritionist Angelle Pate recognizes that it’s hard to change eating habits. She meets with each parent and child and assesses the current diet, then advises them.
“It’s more convenient to go through the drive-through, but lack of knowledge plays a huge role,” Pate said. “It’s something as simple as what yogurt do I buy, what cereal do I buy, which bread do I buy. White vs. whole wheat products — they don’t even know the difference and why it’s important to choose whole wheat or whole grain products over white.
“Everybody’s busy, so there are barriers that we need to break down from a nutrition standpoint,” Pate said. “If we’re busy, how can we have a plan? How can we make healthier choices on the go?”
Dr. Savarra Mantzor leads the exercise component, teaching the youngsters ways to be active even if they don’t have access to a health club. Some of her ideas are out-of-the-box.
“You’d be surprised at how much energy it takes to kick a pillow across a lawn,” Tyson said.
After the 10 weeks, patients are encouraged to schedule follow-up appointments. Along the way, Tyson said she avoids talking about weight, but focuses on behavior.
“If you can get them to change their behavior, when they grow older this is stuff they’re going to take with them,” she said. “It’s just like teaching them to tie their shoes and brush their teeth when they’re young. It should be the same for eating and exercising. You should want them to know from day one what’s appropriate, what’s a good size portion, why shouldn’t you eat too much of that, why you should move your body every day. That’s where we focus.”