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Steering Obese Children Away From Ribs, Toward Radishes

Obesity rates among low-income preschoolers nationwide have declined in 19 states. That’s after decades where the rates increased. In Oregon, obesity rates in young children haven’t declined, but they leveled off. What does it take to help a child lose weight and develop good habits?

Diana Davis lives in Redmond and works at Bi-Mart. She’s the guardian for her grandson, 10-year-old Tony Davis. And she’s worried, because he has a body mass index in the 95th percentile. 

Diana Davis sought weight-loss help for her 10-year-old grandson, Tony, who was being bullied for being overweight.

Diana Davis sought weight-loss help for her 10-year-old grandson, Tony, who was being bullied for being overweight.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

“Tony has a lot of self-esteem issues going on,” Davis says. “And a lot of it has to do with his obesity. And he’s been being bullied a lot. Severe bullying.”

“There’s these kids at school that hate me — like literally hate me,” adds Tony. “And they would be really rude to me, bully me. Hurt me.”

“The worst issue was him being point-blank hit by a football in his chest,” Davis says. “He asked the kids to stop. They did it again. Then he told them to stop again.”

Davis says she turned to the St. Charles Family Care center for help.  So what does Tony think about visiting a doctor about weight loss and bullying? “I’m like yeah. I get someone to actually talk to about stuff,”  Tony says.

He says talking to a doctor is different from talking to another adult — and grandma agrees. 

“They’re not judgmental,” Davis says. “So I look at it and I’m like, ‘What did you do?’ And he says, ‘I didn’t do anything, they came at me.’ So it seems like, they’re very open to what he has to say. And then, where I’m lost, I don’t know what to do, they have different ways of helping us.”

They started by limiting his food intake and video games. But grandma says, it didn’t work. 

Davis explains: “All of a sudden I wasn’t just dealing with a child that was overweight and a child that was being bullied. Now … he was becoming angry, he was saying, ‘This isn’t fair. Why does everybody get this this and this, but I only get this.’ And then he started sneaking food. And so now I’ve got a child that’s sneaking and lying that wasn’t doing this before. And I’m like: ‘We’ve got to try different approaches.’”

So they did. They enrolled Tony in a summer parks and rec program, where grandma says he swims, hikes and fishes nine hours a day, five days a week. Then, when he gets home, he’s allowed to play video games. She says that made things a lot easier. It’s too early to tell whether this is working for Tony yet, in terms of weight loss. 

A new study released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that some states are having success fighting early childhood obesity.  A spokesman from the Oregon Health Authority says while the obesity statistics didn’t go down here, they didn’t increase — as in three other states — so that’s still encouraging.  Swanson says there are some things successful states have in common. 

“You know, policy change in school lunches … environmental changes to make exercise more accessible near people’s homes,” says Swanson. “I mean not that Oregon is so behind the curve in all those things. But when you talk about all the multiple systems it really takes in order to influence the health behaviors within a family system or within a community, it takes a lot of time.”

Back in Redmond, Diana Davis says it’s not easy to change a family’s habits. Her husband is skinny, so he’s apt to walk into the house after a long day at work with a bag of chips and a beer — and plonk himself down at the computer.  

“I’ve told him, if you’re going to bring stuff in the house, you need to hide it,” explains Davis. “You need to not eat it in front of him or me. It’s the way it’s going to be. Because it’s not fair. I love chocolate. So what does he walk in? Ding-Dongs. It’s not fair. I don’t get the Ding-Dongs. So I go, ‘You do not show it.’ You try to change a man his age. I just doesn’t happen, no matter how hard you try!”

I tried to reach Davis’s husband, but he didn’t call back.  Tony’s doctor, Nathan Thompson, says lifestyle changes like eating healthily work best when everyone in a family participates. 

“It’s hard to predict great success unless the whole family does,” explains Dr. Thompson.

But Tony’s psychologist, Doctor Kim Swanson, says that doesn’t mean Tony and his grandma should just give up. 

“I think the best avenue is compromise,” he says, “and I think that Di’s done a really great job of striving to get to some level of compromise.” 

Diana Davis says, “I told him, it’s going to be him and me. It’s going to be him and me.” 

The CDC study did’t say why obesity rates may be changing. But it found several factors at work, including: an increase in breastfeeding; a renewed emphasis on healthier food and increased physical activity; as well as the inclusion of healthier produce in federally subsidized food packages. 

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