A recent study shows that not only are obesity rates on the rise, but Black and Hispanic Boston high school students are more likely to become obese or overweight than White students.
To address the problem, Children's Hospital Boston's Primary Care Center developed an obesity prevention and management program called One Step Ahead (OSA) to teach patients and families about healthy eating and exercise. OSA provides children and teens ages 3 to 13 with a medical evaluation, nutritional counseling, access to physical activities and resources, and behavioral psychology services to encourage them to stay healthy. "Patients in OSA learn the importance of being active and receive positive messages about good nutrition," says Vanessa Ludlow, RD, LDN, a nutritionist with OSA. "We focus on helping the child understand their sense of hunger. We want to get rid of the 'diet mentality.'"
Shaihiem James of Roxbury and her 8-year-old son, Jahi, know first-hand how OSA can influence a child's eating habits. Jahi was referred to OSA by his pediatrician. He wasn't obese, but his growth chart was off for his age. At his first appointment, Jahi was introduced to his team—a nurse practitioner, dietician, physical activity specialist and social worker. "They didn't tell Jahi he was overweight," says Shaihiem. "Instead, they talked about making bodies healthier by looking at what you eat."
One way OSA helps children eat more healthfully is by identifying culturally appropriate food choices for families. Supermarket gift certificates provided by OSA allow families to shop for fresh foods that may otherwise be unaffordable. Also, to encourage physical activity, patients in the program can receive stipends for things like a bicycle or dance classes. One popular choice has been a membership at Body by Brandy's Kidz Gym in Roxbury, which is filled with kid-size equipment. Jahi has been exercising there for a few months. "He really likes the gym and the staff," his mom says, "especially the Dance Dance Revolution dance pads."
OSA teaches the whole family how to have a more healthful lifestyle, helping them feel that good nutrition and exercise are achievable goals. "It's helped our whole family," says Shaihiem. "We have a better understanding of things we can do to stay healthy, and are excited about exercising and eating right."