Reflecting, Gayla Grubbs recalled that her 15-year-old son, Sam, had a weight problem since he was in the third grade. “He gained weight gradually, and I didn’t realize until it was full blown,” she said.
But the realization about Sam’s weight problem and the determination to do something about it did not hit home until she learned that her son’s middle school classmates were teasing and bulling him.
“He began complaining about not wanting to go to school,” Grubbs said, feeling her child’s pain. “I decided last May that this was a good time for us to seek help about his weight, as he was transitioning to high school. I wanted Sam to be healthy more than anything else.”
Sam’s story is not unique. Indeed, nearly 40 percent of Georgia’s children are overweight or obese, making Georgia the state with the second-highest rate of childhood obesity, according to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Nationally, childhood obesity has tripled since 1980, with nearly one in three children either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two reasons for this epidemic: children today are less active than previous generations, and they eat too many empty calories. And as pediatrician Dr. Stephanie Walsh explained, parents of overweight children are often the last to notice the problem.
Childhood obesity causes a myriad of physical health problems that are well known: hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. But there are psychological scars as well. “It is heartbreaking to listen to my patients talk about being bullied by other kids because of their weight,” said Walsh, who directs Strong4Life, a clinic at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for youth struggling with weight issues. “Many of them develop anxiety, depression and a feeling of helplessness.”
Sam, now a patient at Strong4Life, had healthy self-esteem at home but not at school. “Sam said he didn’t realize he has a weight problem,” Grubbs said, “but deep down he knew he had an issue. I think he was in denial.”
As with most parents in this situation, Grubbs accepts much of the blame. She regrets “enabling” Sam to be sedentary. Like many other kids his age, Sam loves sitting at home and playing video games—especially Modern Warfare. But blame is not a word that Walsh uses when treating overweight children and their families.
“Instead, I use the word responsibility,” she stated. “Anyone involved in a child’s life has a responsibility.” That includes pediatricians who must address the issue early, school officials who have removed physical education from the curriculum, and lawmakers who think it is acceptable to include doughnuts on school breakfast menus, she said.
Strong4Life takes an uncommon approach to weight loss. For one thing, the clinic does not set specific weight loss goals for its patients. It is all about making a lifestyle change, explained Walsh. She encourages Sam and her other patients to add another vegetable to their diet—perhaps a vegetable they have never tried before. Walsh also prompts the children to add an additional 15 to 30 minutes to their new exercise routine.
Sam’s new lifestyle of healthier eating and exercise has resulted in him losing inches, at the same time adding muscle mass to his 5-foot-9-inch frame. Grubbs, a restaurant owner, said she hired a personal trainer for Sam, who now works out at a gym with his friends.
Getting family members involved in the patient’s new lifestyle is an integral part of Strong4Life’s approach. Indeed, experts say a successful program includes the whole family eating healthier foods and becoming active.
Grubbs said she was overweight as a child and has struggled with weight issues most of her life. “I started changing my lifestyle about six months before Sam began going to the clinic,” she revealed. “I did not want to perpetuate this problem to the next generation.” She now goes to the gym with Sam and supports him at home by making sure her family has healthy choices of food available.
Walsh emphasized that parents with overweight children are making a mistake if they approach weight loss like a New Year’s resolution. “Don’t say we will eat better from now on or no more junk food, ever,” she said. “That is not realistic. Making New Year’s sort of resolutions just do not work.”
Instead, Walsh recommends making a series of small commitments to healthy eating, such as introducing a new vegetable on Wednesdays and then perhaps serving fish on Thursday nights. And do not make the mistake of starting an over-ambitious exercise program. Begin with a five-minute walk and then set a goal of adding three minutes the following week—incremental changes make all the difference.
Sam has made significant progress, and his self-esteem is building. There are challenges ahead as he moves forward, but he and his mother are committed to following through on their lifestyle change.
Walsh is thrilled. “It is the best feeling in the world to see kids make a positive change in how they feel about themselves and their ability to make a change,” she said.