As obesity rates in kids rise, so does need for specialty clinic

An interdisciplinary effort at Children's Hospital focuses on safe, effective ways for kids to lose pounds and avoid long-term health problems.

At 18, Ashley Bonds deals with many issues of a typical young woman, including weight and body image. But for her and a growing number of young people in the United States, obesity means risk of several diseases once reserved for the middle-aged.

Since 1980 the number of obese children in the United States has tripled, as reported in a 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and so has the risk to their heart and health. A 2010 study in the journal Pediatrics found that obese children as young as 3 had elevated levels of a protein that is associated with heart disease in adults.

“It’s difficult to tell 10- and 13-year-olds, ‘You have diabetes, and if we don’t do something now, it’s only going to get worse,’” says Stephenie Wallace, M.D., University of Alabama at Birmingham assistant professor of pediatrics and Ashley’s physician.

Wallace is the medical director for the Children’s Center for Weight Management at Children’s Hospital, an interdisciplinary clinic for children whose efforts to work with their physicians on weight-loss have not been successful. Wallace says children who are referred to the CCWM are at risk for heart problems caused by high cholesterol levels and hypertension. 

Children treated at the clinic have a body mass index in the 99th percentile, making them morbidly obese. They’re referred to the clinic when their efforts to work with their pediatricians on weight-loss have not been successful.

Wallace says there are ways to lose weight in a slow and safe manner. “Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and limit sugar-sweetened beverages and calories,” Wallace explains.

She suggests other lifestyle changes:

  • Turn off technology. Limit kids to two hours of television or computer time each day.
  • Commit to an hour of exercise or physical activity every day.
  • Eat right outside the home. Pack a healthy school lunch, and ensure others aren’t supplying them high-calorie treats.

Clinic psychologist Heather Austin, Ph.D., meets with clinic patients and family members to discuss the ways in which everyone can support the process. “Talk with other adults in the family and communicate clearly your family goals and encourage extended family to be supportive,” says Austin, also an assistant professor of psychology at UAB. Talking about your goals help you refine them and better ensures they will be met, she said.

As Bond’s weight drops, so does her risk of more serious health problems, but her spirits rise.

“It’s exciting, because for once I can actually see results, and it helps when you see results because it makes you want to do more and it’s hard, it’s so hard. But seeing all the results you get just overcomes the difficult times,” Bond says.

“It’s been a hard journey, because she was getting to the weight where her health issues were starting to pop up and be an issue,” says Ashley’s mother, Jada Bonds, wiping away a tear. “To see numbers starting to come down, it’s exciting.”

This year, the CCWM will hold its second annual weeklong summer camp, Camp SHINE, beginning June 5, 2011, and it now is accepting applications from children ages 10-14. Applicants do not have to be a current patient. They will enroll 10 campers who will learn to prepare and eat healthier foods and participate in fun, physical activities. For more information about Camp SHINE and the CCWM, call 205-824-5750.