1-29-2013 Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network’s Our America With Lisa Ling aired an episode called ‘Generation XXL’ which focused on the childhood obesity epidemic in America. She reported that for the first time in history, our children may have shorter life spans than their parents. She reminds us of the sobering statistics that it is estimated that over 12 million children in America are considered obese, a number that has tripled in the past 30 years. One in six of America’s kids are considered to be obese. So how did we get here?
She tries to find the answer by traveling deep into the heart of Southern America, the hardest hit region of America’s childhood obesity epidemic. We meet a 100 pound 4 year old, a 347 pound 12 year old, and a community that found working together was the solution for their obesity problems.
Jaylen – four years old and 93 pounds!
Lisa starts in Little Rock Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the nation. She introduces us to Stacy* a single mother struggling to take care of four kids. Three of her children are relatively thin, but her youngest son, Jaylen* is 4 years old and weighs 93 pounds.
We find out that being a single mother with her hands full, Stacy found it was easiest to pacify Jaylen with food and fell into that habit since he was a baby. Even though she feeds all of her children the same, Jaylen always wants more. We see that Jaylen knows that whining to his mother gets him more food! She says she gives it to him because she loves him. But when he was two years old Stacy discovered that her son was struggling to breathe at night. Doctors diagnosed Jaylen with sleep apnea. With all that extra weight on his chest he cannot get enough oxygen and now must use a respiratory ventilator when he sleeps to assist his breathing during the night.
Since that diagnosis Stacy and Jaylen have been making regular visits to Arkansas Children’s Hospital to try to get Jaylen’s weight under control. The clinic tries to teach families how to create healthier habits for themselves and their children. The doctors at the clinic have developed a multi-disciplinary approach to address the causes and effects of Jaylen’s obesity problem. They see a team of specialists including dietitians, physical therapists, and psychologists.
Lisa Ling reports the cost for this care is many times covered by Medicaid because many low income families do not have medical insurance. The cost for the nation is estimated to be $168 billion a year to fight obesity.
But the camera shows that Jaylen arrived with his mother at the clinic carrying a pack of candy that he continued to snack on while there. Today’s weigh-in showed that Jaylen gained 8 pounds since his last visit a month ago and now weighs 101 pounds!! Stacy was informed that Jaylen, at 3 feet 9.3 inches should weigh about 50 pounds at his age. At this point we see Stacy take the candy out of Jaylen’s hand!! But after some whining, Stacy gave in and handed the candy back to the 4 year old!! She said she has a hard time saying No to him!
The clinic professionals constantly try to drive home to Stacy that the only way Jaylen is going to lose weight is if she stands firm and learn to say No. Or else she will be subjecting her beloved son who is considered obese to high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol problems, joint problems, sleep apnea, as well as depression, and self-esteem problems. She was advised by the time he is 20 he will be 500 pounds. Lisa reminds us that 77% of obese children become obese adults. It is a life or death situation but is a preventable if only parents draw the line and take positive action.
Jaylen’s weight gain has sparked a new commitment in Stacy to change the whole family’s eating habits to a healthier diet and to stick to the plan laid out by the children’s hospital clinic. She has started to offer her kids more fruits and vegetables and healthier meats such as turkey instead of fried chicken. She is going to try to say No to Jaylen to keep his portions under control but it seems that is going to be a much bigger challenge!
Follow-up Note – Jaylen’s weight gain has slowed dramatically. He is in now in preschool and growing taller by the inches. If he continues to exercise and limit his portions, he should reach a healthy weight by 10 years old.
Briana – 12 years old, in the 6th grade and 347 pounds
Our hearts break when Briana* cries as she tells Lisa that she gets called names and is picked on every day at school. She says she can’t take it. As a six grader and weighing 347 pounds, Briana is having trouble fitting in at school. Her excessive weight has made her a constant target for bullies.
Briana lives in Mississippi, the fattest state in the nation, where nearly 35% of the population is obese.
The family moved from Illinois to Mississippi when Briana was nine. She explained she used to play outdoors, ride her bike, was active with the Boys And Girls Club, and used to ran and play games like dodge ball. But in Mississippi she began to be increasingly inactive and that’s when her weight started getting out of control. It has more than doubled over the last three years.
Lisa sees that Briana’s diet has a lot to do with her obesity.
Lisa speaks to Briana’s mother, Chanel*, who cooks dinners for the community to help compensate the family’s income. Chanel describes Soul Food as a Southern style of cooking where they eat a lot of turkey wings and pig feet and use pork and grease in their greens and fried cabbage. She says eating Soul Food is a big part of the culture in Mississippi. And while the food is legendary for its taste, it is loaded with fat, sugar, and plenty of calories. A trip to the grocery store with Chanel shows Lisa that the family eats very little fresh fruits and vegetables. Chanel tells Lisa that she doesn’t think people in her community are really that concerned about weight.
Chanel cooks her Soul Food with family recipes handed down from the generations, a food culture that she is passing down to her daughter, Briana.
A visit to Briana’s school show that kids her age will not always make the best food choices for lunch. Everyone receives a free lunch and there are choices of fresh fruit or fruit cocktail, regular or chocolate milk with a difference of 11 grams of sugar for regular milk compared to 25 grams of sugar for the chocolate. They also offer deep-fried options like french fries. They sell snacks like ice cream and chips. Lisa reports that about $2 billion of junk food and soda is sold every year in school lunch lines for additional revenue to compensate for budget cuts. Most of the kids that talked to Lisa said the junk food options are the most popular choices.
But Briana wants to lose weight because she is tired of everyone picking on her. The doctors have told her that 52% of her body weight is made up of fat. At 12 years old, she is considered morbidly obese.
So Briana is now making dietary changes but diet alone is not going to be enough for her to lose all the weight she wants. She will need to exercise. She now regularly goes to a community center where she can use the treadmill. She also has a mentor that coaches and monitors her progress. Her mentor says that Briana is very motivated to lose the weight and she is slowly becoming more outgoing and confident. She even decided to step out of the shadows and go to a school dance for the first time.
Briana’s goal is to lose 100 pounds. But she must stick to her diet and exercise plan. And her parent’s support is crucial to her success. Her father tells her that she doesn’t want to cut her life short when there is something that she can do now. Her mother admits the family will have to change in order for Briana to change. The family must work together as a team.
Follow-up Note – Briana’s family is still struggling to change their diet but Briana is walking to and from school every day and has dropped a full pants size.
Pound Punchers – Goal 1000 pounds
Lisa travels to a little small town named Alkol in West Virginia. Lisa explains that most of the state is very rural and access to healthy food is very limited. Some towns don’t even have sidewalks. But Lisa tells of a group of firefighters in this community that did not let the fact that they have no sidewalks from keeping them from trying to break the generational cycle of obesity. They call themselves the ‘Pound Punchers’. For the past year, five days a week, rain or shine, a close knit group of families walk up to 8 miles a day while the entire community cheers them on.
Melissa*, a 47 year mother who manages the books for the Mad River Volunteer Fire Department said it was time to show the kids that they do not have to live in the city, they do not have to have a gym next door, but they can walk in the roads and they can get the weight off.
Melissa herself once weighed 416 pounds. She explained to Lisa Ling that when she was 14 years old she was tragically raped. At the time she weighed 145 pounds. But she emotionally thought that if she built up a wall of weight she could defend herself from further harm. She reached 416 pounds. She didn’t want to look at herself in the mirror. Her then 17-year-old son RJ* was also embarrassed by his mother’s weight and didn’t want to be seen with her for fear other kids would make fun of him. Unfortunately he was also following in his mother’s footsteps. Through his teens his weight climbed to 289 pounds from lack of exercise and drinking too many sugary sodas. At one point he was drinking up to 24 cans a day. Melissa admits she also contributed to the weight gain by the meals she cooked. She said she would prepare daily meals that would consist of pizza, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, fried chicken and green beans.
Melissa got her wake-up call at the doctor’s office when he told her within a year she would be diabetic. Her husband had already become diabetic five years ago and used to require up to eight injections of insulin a day. She now feared that her son RJ would be headed in the same direction. She did not want to see her son limited in his life and wanted him to live his life to the fullest.
Her family’s health problems was the motivation Melissa needed to make a change. But she realized she couldn’t do it alone. So she asked her buddies at the fire station to help her. Because they were also overweight they all agreed. They then formed the ‘Pound Punchers’.
The close knit families began walking the streets for exercise. But after a while, they began to feel that they needed other exercise options, but the nearest gym was 30 miles away. They were able to get a space to workout in the fire station but could not afford exercise equipment.
So they went to the county commission and asked for and received donations. They were then able to fully stock the exercise room with a variety of machines and then open it up to the public for free. They find that exercising together makes the workouts much more fun and they all support and encourage each other.
They do weekly weigh-ins and chart their weight losses. Over the past year Melissa has lost over 120 pounds and finally is able to fit into a pair of jeans.
But the group has found that the weight loss has slowed down. They had been focusing on exercising but have not made dietary changes. They were still eating sugary cakes and cookies, fried foods, hot dogs and the like. Now they are going to focus on healthier diet choices because they realize that is what is needed for them to continue losing weight.
This whole is experience has affected Melissa’s family life in a positive way. Her son, RJ, says he and his mother are now closer. He says his mother is a role model, his Superhero, as he himself has learned to cut back on sugary soda and has also begun losing weight.
On this day, Lisa Ling attends a celebration the ‘Pound Punchers’ are giving in honor of their weight loss. They will be releasing balloons into the air to signify all the weight that’s gone! They will be releasing one balloon for each pound that they have collectively lost, 555 balloons! Next year they hope to double that amount.
Follow-up Note – the ‘Pound Punchers’ have lost an additional 214 pounds, well on their way to their goal of losing 1000 pounds.
* Disclaimer – all spellings of names mentioned in this article cannot be quaranteed for accuracy of spelling or representation.
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