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Young fat fighters

Sunday, August 25, 2002

OAK PARK, Ill. -- By now, it's a well-known fact: the nation's younger generation is fatter than any before it, with 14 percent classified as obese or overweight.

Dana Jenkins was part of that statistic. An athletic but chubby kid much of his life, he weighed 212 pounds -- 150 percent his ideal body weight -- by the time he was 15.

Then he decided to do something about it. "I had to," says Dana, now 17 and a senior in high school. "It was time."

With the help of a nutritionist and his family, he changed his eating habits, started exercising more and has dropped 30 pounds over the last two years.

The method may sound tried, true -- and boring. But experts hope more young people will turn to healthier weight-loss methods, and ignore all the mixed messages about weight around them, from stick-thin models to "super-sized" fast food.

They say a multidisciplinary approach that gives young people and their parents access to teams of exercise therapists, child psychologists, doctors and nutritionists is proving most successful.

For some young people, it's a matter of avoiding serious health problems.

Going to hospitals

Researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control say obesity-related child hospitalizations have increased at a "disturbing" rate in the past 20 years. Diabetes diagnoses have nearly doubled and sleep apnea related to childhood obesity is up fivefold.

Experts say the 14 percent obesity figure, which applies to children ages 6 through 19, represents a near-tripling of the number of severely overweight youth since the 1960s. They blame everything from young people's penchant for high-calorie snack foods and soft drinks to a more sedentary lifestyle encouraged by TV and computer games.

Busy parents -- who play a key role in helping their children lose weight -- also opt for quicker, high-calorie meals.

"It's 7 o'clock and everyone's hungry. It's a lot easier to order a pizza than to prepare a balanced meal," says Kelly Schloredt, a staff psychologist and research associate at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle.

Schloredt, a member of the hospital's Child Obesity Action Team, helps "emotional eaters" -- those who turn to food when stressed or upset -- find other outlets for their problems.

For Dana, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, spending too much time alone was part of the trouble.

"It was more of a habit," he says of snacking on chips and cookies, sometimes entire packages of them. "If I was bored, I'd find myself in the kitchen."

Another problem: He's allergic to most fresh fruits and vegetables. The hospital nutritionist helped him find alternatives -- crackers, cheese, canned peaches or fruit cocktail.

He started riding his bike more, drank more water and ate breakfast. He also worked out at the YMCA with his mother, Norma, who joined Weight Watchers and added more salads, rice and other low-calorie foods to family meals.

YMCAs across the country are noting the trend and adding fitness programs for teens -- part of a national movement to encourage young people to be more active.

President Bush has launched fitness initiatives for children, while former Surgeon General David Satcher has a national summit on child obesity planned for October in Washington.

Universities and corporate America are also getting involved

The University of North Texas is providing materials and leading discussion groups to give young people and their parents everyday tactics for eating healthier and exercising. It is working with 800 ninth-graders in Dallas schools, and researchers will track the results.

Sporting goods retailer The Sports Authority developed a free "Fitness Authority" exercise program for Boys & Girls Clubs nationwide.

Dana says losing weight has been an important boost to his self-image. He no longer hides beneath baggy clothes, and he's stopped avoiding the swimming pool.

And there's one other benefit his mother has noted.

"More girls are calling," she says, looking at Dana, who just smiles and blushes.


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