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Article of Interest - Obesity

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Bridges4Kids LogoThe Pain of Obese Children

I don't want to die young!  Poor eating habits and lack of physical activity contribute to a national epidemic of childhood obesity, exposing a rising number of kids to serious health risks.
by Laura Diamond, Jacksonville Times-Union, August 31, 2003; Distributed by Parents Advocating School Accountability, San Francisco

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Theresa Lennox has been battling her weight for nearly all of her 12 years.

Most times, weight wins.

Her mom traces her weight gain to age 3, when she developed a passion for Coca-Cola. The soda fueled her appetite, and soon she was eating seconds and thirds at meals.

By the time she was in kindergarten, she couldn't run as fast or for as long as her classmates. By the time she was 9, she already had tried dozens of diets, including one that allowed her to eat only fruit.

When she hit 300 pounds last year, Theresa and her family knew things had to change.

On doctors' orders, the entire family -- not just Theresa -- started eating healthier. Cereal, not cookies, for breakfast. Water instead of Coke. Salad rather than macaroni and cheese. Theresa now rides her bike for 30 minutes a day in her Callahan neighborhood. When she can't get on the bike, she plays basketball with friends.

This time, Theresa is winning. She already has shed about 50 pounds from her 5-foot-5-inch frame.

"This isn't just about looking good," she said as she pulled her T-shirt down to camouflage her body. "I want to feel better about myself. My life is dependent on it. I don't want to die young."

Theresa has reason to worry. She is a member of the first generation that isn't expected to live longer than the previous generation, medical researchers say.

Obesity is a national public health crisis, spreading like an infectious disease. If it continues at its current rate, researchers expect it to surpass tobacco as the leading indicator of premature and preventable death by 2020.

The number of overweight kids tripled between 1970 and 2000. Today, almost 9 million children -- 15 percent of kids ages 6 to 19 -- are overweight, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obesity can have serious health consequences, increasing the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease.

Theresa has type 2 diabetes, a disease once found only in adults that can damage the eyes, kidneys and heart. She must continue to lose weight or she'll be worrying about heart problems at a time when she should be thinking about college.

Too many calories

Theresa is in pain.

She walks slowly, with her shoulders slumped over, as though her body were paper she could reshape into a delicate piece of origami.

"People just see me as the fat girl," she said. "Sometimes I want to scream: 'Don't you think I want to be skinny just like all of you?'"

Theresa has an attractive, round face, with bright, attentive eyes. Her long, silky black hair receives envious stares from her middle school classmates.

"The hardest thing about being overweight is having to live with the fact I might be overweight my entire life," she said as she stared down at her shoes. "I'm never going to be one of those itty-bitty girls."

Fewer children are itty bitty because they consume more calories than they burn. Many kids eat a steady diet of large portions and high-calorie fast food and soda. They trade exercise and outside activities for watching television and playing video games.

In response to the epidemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics released this month its first policy dealing solely with identifying and preventing obesity-related disorders in children.

Lawmakers nationwide are changing policy to promote healthier eating in schools. Florida announced a new program last week encouraging elementary school children to eat more fruits and vegetables. And one food manufacturer, Kraft Foods, pledged to reduce sugar, fat and calories in many of its products and to reduce single-serving portions beginning in 2004.

Still, the best action is encouraging people to live healthier by decreasing calories and increasing their activities, said Donald George, chairman of the Healthy Jacksonville Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition.

"This doesn't necessarily mean we want everyone to be thin," said George, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Nemours Children's Clinic in Jacksonville. "This is about people being healthy and leading healthier lives."

For children to succeed, the whole family must be involved.

"Children repeat what they learn at home," he said. "For the child to change, the family must change and parents must model healthy behavior."

Mixed blessing

After their youngest daughter, 9-year-old Jarrell, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, Jo-Lynn and Joseph Parrott changed the entire family's diet.

The Jacksonville family tries to eat dinner together every night. But they're now sitting down to salads made with spinach and romaine lettuce instead of iceberg, fresh string beans instead of cornbread, Diet Mountain Dew instead of regular.

They also are limiting portion sizes.

Jarrell may have only one small serving of her favorite macaroni and cheese. Sometimes she flashes a smile and tilts her head in an effort to wheedle a second serving from her mother.

It doesn't work.

"What was a curse for us has become a blessing," Joseph Parrott said of Jarrell's diagnosis. "We were so scared to learn she was sick, but because of it we are all eating better. It has saved us all."

Since her diagnosis, Jarrell's weight has held steady at 128 even as she's gotten about 2 inches taller. She now is 4-feet 8-inches tall and still has more growing to do.

The rest of the family has lost weight. Her two teenage sisters have lost 15 pounds each. Mom is down nine. Dad isn't sure how much he's lost, but his shorts are looser.

The family may be healthier, but Jarrell misses some of her old food.

"Mmm ... Sprite. That was really good," she said as she licked her lips. "And macaroni and cheese. And Snickers.

"Yeah, that was all good. But you know what? I had to give all that up and then they lose all this weight, but then I'm the one who has to do all this work."

Jarrell checks her blood sugar five times a day using a kit the size of a Palm Pilot. She wipes her finger with a swab, pricks it and squeezes a drop of blood onto a meter. Seconds later, a number appears on the screen.

On a recent morning, Jarrell checked her levels as her mother prepared breakfast. Parrott measured out 1/3-cup of Honey Nut Cheerios and the same amount of 2-percent milk.

Jarrell stared glumly at the contents in her bowl.

"It's not as big as it once was," she said.

Missing pieces

While Jarrell thinks about the food she's missing, Theresa wonders about the parts of life she's missing.

She's in seventh grade at Callahan Middle School, but she should be in eighth. She had to repeat sixth grade because she was out sick too many days. Overweight children miss four times as much school as their healthy-weight peers, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Theresa also misses dressing like girls her age.

Before she lost weight, Theresa wore a size 24. She shopped in the adult section and couldn't find fashionable clothes. Frilly peasant tops were too small. Instead she wore leggings, big shirts and house dresses.

Christine Lennox knew how much her daughter didn't want to wear those clothes.

"When I looked at her looking at other girls, I knew she was hurting," Christine Lennox said. "It is heartbreaking, because you don't want to see your child in pain."

For years, Christine Lennox didn't know how to help Theresa. Doctors said to put her on a diet, but Christine Lennox couldn't deny Theresa food when she was hungry.

Now, with the help of a dietitian, Christine Lennox cooks balanced meals that fill Theresa. Because the meals are healthier and Theresa has been exercising more, she naturally is losing weight.

When she went back-to-school shopping this year, she bought clothes she wanted to wear, not just items that fit.

"I feel better getting dressed now," Theresa said, imitating a model's runway walk to show off her new jeans. "I look more like everyone else."

Her classmates noticed. On the first day of school, kids told her she looked better.

For Theresa, school is a source of comfort and pain. It is where her friends are, but it also serves as a reminder of how much bigger she is than everyone else.

Her favorite class is band, where she plays the flute.

"It is always pretty," Theresa said of her favorite instrument. "No matter what you look like or what you're wearing, you're pretty playing a flute."

Despite her large hands and chubby fingers, Theresa plays with grace and ease.

This confidence allows her to be playful.

"You need to work on this song, because you can't play it," Theresa said to a friend, Emily Johns, during a recent class.

Emily gasped. Theresa smiled. Soon both started giggling.

But most students aren't as kind as Emily.

Theresa can't remember a time when she wasn't teased. This year, kids are calling her "jelly roll" and "fat retard."

Theresa feels the stares of other students. They point. They laugh.

Still, she is active in class, raising her hand often to answer questions.

But she fidgets in her chair. Both legs don't fit comfortably under the desk, so her left leg rests in the aisle. The desk top cuts into her stomach.

As hard as life is for Theresa, most of her worries are for her chubby 6-year-old sister, Victoria.

Like the rest of the family, Victoria started eating healthier following Theresa's diagnosis. Theresa also invites her to go on bike rides.

"I know how tough it is being like this," Theresa said. "I don't want her to be like me." 

   

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