The scale reads 138 pounds, a drop from last week, and the young woman on it smiles at her achievement. This scenario may be typical at Weight Watchers’ meetings, but Sharon Onofre is only 12 years old, and she takes part in a different program– one aimed at combating childhood obesity.
Sharon’s situation isn’t that unusual. Childhood obesity is an alarming problem nationwide, and in Hispanic communities, such as Boyle Heights, children are far more likely to be obese. According to the 2013 Los Angeles Health Atlas, 32 percent of children in Boyle Heights were obese in 2010, the second highest level in Los Angeles, where the overall rate was 22 percent.
With the help of their mother, Sharon and her 8-year-old sister, Michelle, are working to become healthier. The girls and their family participate in a program called STOMP through AltaMed, a healthcare organization that serves low-income communities with clinics and specialized programs. STOMP stands for Solutions & Treatments in Obesity Management & Prevention.
Factors contributing to obesity include lack of education, poor access to healthy food, too little exercise and genetics. Obese children have a greater chance of a wide range of troubling health issues as they age.
Recently, programs like STOMP have sprung up that combine nutrition and exercise education, medical care, motivational messages and sometimes cognitive behavioral therapy.
Preventing chronic disease
STOMP began about a year ago and targets children aged 6 to 17. The aim is to promote lifestyle changes that can help obese children achieve normal weights. This, in turn, can help prevent chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Last year, Sharon, who is 4’10”, weighed close to 170 pounds. “I felt really bad about myself,” she said. After a year of monitoring her diet and seven weeks of the 12-week STOMP curriculum, Sharon has lost 32 pounds.
The Onofre family meets with the STOMP staff at the facility on Whittier Boulevard every Saturday for an hour and a half. The children check in with Dr. Dustin Taylor, the program’s main physician, and then go learn about nutrition and exercise with the physical trainer.
While the children exercise, the parents attend nutrition classes and learn the importance of reading food labels to calculate calorie intake, as well as other essential ways to keep healthy.
“Some of the initial adjustments you hear with the patients is that they are eating more fruits and vegetables.” Taylor says. “They’re spending more time playing outside, and less time watching television.”
Guadalupe Lozano, Sharon’s mother, said the program has helped her understand that “we don’t need to go on a diet to lower our weight and to be healthy.”
“We are doing it to learn how to eat better, in a more healthy fashion, eating more vegetables, fruits, to eat what our body really needs,” she said.
The family keeps track of food intake, exercise and sedentary time during the week and brings charts with them to the meetings. “I feel better and can finally stretch a little better,” Sharon says. “I run a little slower than the others, but I run faster than usual, and I feel myself getting skinnier.”
As Sharon and Michelle become more active, their Body Mass Indices (BMI) are decreasing. BMI is the most commonly used tool to measure body fat. If a child is in the 95th percentile or higher for his or her age and gender, he or she is classified as obese. To participate in STOMP, patients have to be in at least the 85th percentile, which is considered overweight.
Francine Kaufman M.D., former head of the Center for Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the chief medical officer and vice president of global diabetes for Medtronic, Inc., says it’s important to address obesity at a young age.
“If you enter adolescence obese and come out of adolescence obese,” she says, “you’re very, very likely to be obese as an adult.”
Lozano enrolled her daughters in the program because she was concerned about them and herself. “I knew all three of us were overweight, and I wanted better nutrition and that they would be healthier,” she says.
Children are not able to address their weight problems alone. “For the most part, the parents are making most of the decisions: what food is in the house, what drinks are in the house, what kind of physical activity the family is going to have,” Kaufman says. This is why STOMP involves the participation of the family. “We have to get the whole family on board for it to be successful,” says Taylor.
Childhood obesity can result from many different factors. Taylor points out that In Boyle Heights, the lack of healthy food choices contributes to the problem. “For every healthy food you can find, there are probably 100 unhealthy options in this neighborhood,” he says. But he added that genetics also play a role.
Latinos more at risk
Latinos are predisposed to diabetes and obesity. They are more likely to have a “thrifty” genetic predisposition that “enabled them to survive when the food source wasn’t quite as replete as it is now,” explains Dr. Kaufman.
The theory is that a “thrifty” genetic predisposition, which leads to more fat storage, developed to survive environments with scarce food resources. While that predisposition helped people to survive in a different era, it has negative health effects in industrialized environments where the food supply is more plentiful.
As part of their nutritional education, the Onofre family has learned the number of calories each should consume during the day, as well as appropriate portion size.
Lozano told of one day when her husband went to get his morning tamale and bolillo, a soft white roll. She said Michelle told him, “Papi, you won’t be able to eat anything for a while if you eat the tamale with the bollillo.”
“Papi, tu no vas a poder comer nada al rato si comes el tamal con bolillo.”
Even children as young as Michelle can understand the basic concept. If someone trying to limit himself to 2,000 calories a day eats a meal at McDonald’s, such as a Big Mac (550 calories) with large fries (500 calories) and a large Coke (280 calories), that person has already consumed two-thirds of his calories for the day.
Sharon says she’s learned a lot since she began STOMP, including how to eat healthily and the importance of exercise. “I actually feel great about myself,” she says. “I’ve lost 10 pounds since I started the program, and I’ve been doing a lot of exercise.”
The experience has been good for the whole family and can change all of their lives, says Sharon. “We’re all doing our best,” she says.
For more information about STOMP, call AltaMed Medical & Dental Group at (323) 307-0449.