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Success stories abound at the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children's Hospital.
When it comes to achieving a healthy weight, nutrition is only one part of the process. Adding exercise to the mix helps build heart health and strength, and—perhaps of equal importance—it also helps build self-confidence.
I was a patient in Boston Children’s Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) program in the early 2000s. At the time, I was not aware of how much of a positive impact the program would have on me later on down the road.
When I was in the program as a young teen, I weighed about 200 pounds. After leaving the program, I went on to play football in high school and continued to gain weight. By the time I gave up football after my freshmen year of college due to injury, I weighed in at 270 pounds.
Kelly Douglas describes how her son Evan would throw frequent tantrums, “slither on the floor” and look for something new to eat every five minutes. It was as if there was a hunger switch inside of him that was broken and constantly turned to 'on,' she says.
But since starting the Opitmal Weight for Life (OWL) Program at Boston Children's Hospital, Evan, a 10-year old boy with autistic tendencies, has shown improvements in his behaviors around food that his parents couldn’t have imagined. “The whole hunger horror has stopped,” she says. “I’m blown away by how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time.”
It’s not just Evan’s behavior that has improved. In just two months, Evan has dropped more than 8 pounds. Kelly, too, has lost 6.5 pounds!
Like many patients who come to the OWL program, Evan is following a low-glycemic diet. This dietary approach is based on whole, natural foods that help stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels and thereby control appetite.
Kelly has seen firsthand the benefits of this plan on Evan’s appetite and, consequently, his general mood and behavior. She says the key has been the addition of protein to every meal. Unlike refined carbohydrates like white bread, sugary cereals and candy that are metabolized quickly, protein provides long-lasting satiety–that feeling of fullness after a meal. Adding protein to every meal helps Evan keep hunger at bay for for several hours.
“We tried eliminating red dye, went gluten-free and got rid of artificial ingredients when we learned that Evan was on the (autism) spectrum,” Kelly says. “But the protein has made such a big difference. If we don’t have protein at every meal, I start to see that old behavior come back.”
As part of the OWL program, Kelly has made other changes that have helped fuel Evan’s success. She makes sure he is physically active for at least one hour every day, even if it’s through play such as bike-riding and running around in the yard. She also allows Evan to eat unlimited amounts of fruits and vegetables to satisfy his tendency to use food as a coping tool.
Kelly also sets aside a few hours every week to cook in bulk so that she can have healthy meals on hand on nights when the family’s schedule is too hectic to prepare a healthy meal from scratch. Oftentimes, she will grill a dozen chicken breasts to use in lunches and dinners throughout the week!
Finally, she allows Evan to eat a treat such as a homemade brownie or a small bowl of ice cream once a week so that he doesn’t feel deprived. “I thought this would be so hard but it’s really not,” Kelly says. “And Evan still gets to be a kid.”
Diego Summers first came to the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) clinic as a 5-year-old boy with chronic asthma, muscle aches and a tough time keeping up with his friends on the playground.
Diego had always been taller and heavier than his peers, but a 6-point weight gain in less than one month prompted his mother, Nancy, to contact the OWL clinic for help managing his weight. While a recent course of steroids for his asthma was a contributor to Diego’s weight gain, a review of his diet revealed other culprits.
Diego was eating mostly refined starches such as crackers, waffles, muffins, white bread and sugary cereals. His portions were those of an adult and he was used to having a treat–cake or ice cream–on most days. Diego was drinking three cups of juice daily. He ate fruit on occasion, but would not touch a vegetable.
Over the next year and a half, Diego met regularly with a pediatrician and a registered dietitian in the OWL clinic to make small but consistent changes in his diet and physical activity level. His first goal was to eliminate all sugary drinks. Research has shown that the body processes liquid calories differently than it processes solid calories. In other words, a 350-calorie meal would leave you feeling full for a while, but a 350-calorie can of soda provides no satiety. Because of the effects of sugar in the body, it actually fuels the appetite.
Nancy also switched from white to whole grain starches and offered Diego more fruit to add fiber to his diet. She served smaller portions and over time, Diego was eating more age-appropriate amounts of food. He began adding sources of protein, such as eggs and peanut butter to meals and snacks to keep him feeling comfortably full for several hours. Finally Diego was able to pursue regular physical activity through the Body by Brandy program in Dorchester, where he now participates four times a week.
The key to his success, says Nancy, is that Diego is not alone. All family members, despite their weight, have made the same healthy changes as Diego. “It has to be a family thing,” says Nancy. (Family members) have to understand and be supportive. If not, it’s so difficult.”
Like all families attempting to make lifestyle changes, Diego has bumped up against obstacles along the way to better health. As a single parent who works and goes to school in the evenings, Nancy had to rely on family members who were not initially on-board with Diego’s new eating plan.
An asthma flare-up in the winter of 2011 left Diego not only inactive, but forced to take another course of steroids, which fueled his appetite.
Nonetheless, Diego and his family stuck with the plan and over time, have managed to slow down his rate of weight gain as he continues to grow. Diego is more energetic and is having an easier time keeping up with his peers. Indeed, when asked the best part about eating healthy, Diego is quick to respond. “Running up and down the stairs," he says. "Now, it's easy. I can run faster."
Josia Reyes knew that reaching a healthier weight would require dedication, perseverance and a commitment to changing long-standing eating habits.
The nearly 16-year-old sophomore at Greater Lawrence Technical High School lived with his mother Jessica, a self-described food addict who was undergoing evaluation for bariatric surgery and the family diet was anything but healthy. Neither Josia nor Jessica cooked; all of their meals were from fast food restaurants. Josia often skipped meals and snacks, leaving him hungry and susceptible to bingeing on convenience food. A severe allergy to fruits presented another obstacle to healthy eating and weight loss.
On the surface it looked to be an uphill battle. But Josia and his mother came to the OWL clinic with two ingredients that would prove crucial to his success in the following months: motivation and a willingness to make changes together.
After initial appointments with a physician, a psychologist and a dietitian, they agreed to prepare at least six meals a week at home. Josia helped his mother with the food shopping and did much of the cooking himself despite a busy extracurricular schedule that included playing football, teaching music to children and playing the drums. He cut back on formerly large portion sizes of foods such as rice and other types of starch and compensated for the lack of fruit in his diet by making sure he was eating more vegetables throughout the day.
Importantly, he and his mother realized the significance of keeping a safe food environment at home. They eliminated former staples such as cupcakes and cookies and stocked the refrigerator and pantry with only healthy choices.
Josia and Jessica returned to the clinic three weeks after his initial visit. Josia, 13 pounds lighter, said he felt more energetic and self-confident. His initial weight loss fueled his desire to make even more healthy changes over the following weeks. The football season had ended but Josia didn’t waste time using the gym at his school, where he worked out three days a week.
Josia realizes it could be a year before he reaches his goal of 198 pounds but he and Jessica are confident he will get there. “If I knew then what I know now we wouldn’t have gotten so big,” she says. “(The OWL program) taught what to eat. It’s been simple.”
We are grateful to have been ranked #1 on U.S. News & World Report's list of the best children's hospitals in the nation for the third year in a row, an honor we could not have achieved without the patients and families who inspire us to do our very best for them. Thanks to you, Boston Children's is a place where we can write the greatest children's stories ever told.”