Ten-year-old Kalie Blackwell doesn’t exactly understand what triglycerides or cholesterol are, but she knows that her numbers are high and that to get them down she needs to lose weight.
In November, Kalie was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, the term for a group of health problems that increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. She is working with nutritionist Amy Hall to make lifestyle changes. Kalie’s mom, Jenny, who’d like to shed some weight, and grandmother Barbara Bunger, who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2003, are also seeking nutritional advice.
Dietary professionals once worked exclusively in hospitals, but today are counseling families on weight and food choices. Health risks associated with excess weight include high blood pressure, high triglycerides, abnormal blood lipid values, high blood sugar, type 2 diabetes, sleep disorders, and psychological and social problems. Approximately 10 percent of U.S. children ages 2 to 5 (6 million) and 16 percent of children ages 6 to 19 (9 million) are overweight, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
It’s predicted that 70 percent of overweight children will become overweight adults.
"Parents need to teach their children by example," says Hall. "If they do not eat right or exercise, they cannot expect their children to."
Registered dietitian Debbie Richardson, who counsels families out of Ahwatukee Pediatrics, agrees. "Family dynamics have to change," she says. It’s not simply a matter of ‘fixing’ the child but making lifestyle shifts for everyone in the family.
"There are families that don’t know the components of a meal," says Richardson. Which means nutrition professionals are going back to basics to teach children and their parents about better food choices.
"Having healthy foods available at home is essential for overall health, nutrition and weight maintenance," says Hall. "Kids get enough saturated fat and junk food away from home. That’s why they need lots of healthy choices in the house, things like whole-grain breads and complex carbs, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, lean meats and healthy fats such as peanut butter, avocado, olives, low-fat dips, and raw nuts and seeds."
At least some of those foods will be newcomers to the Blackwells’ Ahwatukee Foothills home. First, though, they are purging the house of the cookies, apple juice and soda, items too tempting to keep around.
"We are going through the pantry and refrigerator and throwing things out," says Jenny Blackwell. The next step will be replacing them with healthy foods and snacks based on a shopping list supplied by Hall.
In the few weeks since they first met with Hall, Kalie has shown improvement in her triglyceride and cholesterol numbers. They’re the result of small changes.
For Kalie Blackwell, these changes are double-edged. New flavors are being introduced, and new grocery shopping and cooking habits are also taking hold.
Linda Bowen of Chandler has adopted many of those changes for her daughter, Kayli, 10, who started seeing Hall in June. Kayli, too, had been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome.
But that wasn’t at the forefront of the girl’s mind. "I didn’t like being in a high grade level and not being like other people," she says.
In eight months Kayli has lost body fat and weight and improved her endurance in soccer. She has also taken up dance.
"At first the changes were hard," says Linda Bowen, "but now she is highly motivated."
Success has come for Kayli because the entire Bowen family, including dad Doug, has changed what they eat.
Now Bowen has incorporated whole grains, vegetables and chicken into her meal plans.
"Our taste buds had to get used to these foods," she says. Food preparation takes time but has become easier, particularly now that Kayli is seeing the rewards.
"It’s been good for Kayli," says Linda Bowen, "and it’s been good for the whole family."
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From the experts
"Family meals are a big deal because these meals are more nutritious and portion size is more realistic. I believe family meals are key."
Lisa Kandell, Affiliated Nutrition Consultants, Scottsdale
"Activity, without question, is key. The recommendation for children is one hour a day, but in the real world if they could get 30 minutes with the family and then 30 minutes walking to school or doing some sort of activity, that would be good. And we’re talking about getting that heart really pumping."
Vivian Miller, TakeCare Consultants
"Be active together. Families need to establish active things other than playing board games or watching a movie. They need to be riding bikes together and throwing around a ball."
Terri Verason, Arizona Dietetic Association