Healthy snacks and not so healthy snacks are readied for tasting during Kaiser's Pediatric Weight Management Program, in Elk Grove, Calif. (Renee C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Step One: Pull everything from your kitchen pantry and inspect the ingredient labels closely. Look for glucose, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, any kind of sugar. Now, for a reality check, consider that about 4.2 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon.
Step Two: Open the fridge and calculate the sugar load in sweetened beverages such as sodas or sports drinks. Visualize the 10 teaspoons of sugar in some 12-ounce sugary drinks.
Step Three: Congratulate yourself. You now know almost as much as a 5-year-old. That is, a 5-year-old being schooled in healthy eating in a new, innovative pediatric weight management program for kids aged 5 to 18 at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, Sacramento, Calif.
The program echoes heightening community and nationwide concern over the obesity epidemic in the United States.
In California, about 17 percent of youths aged 6 to 19 are obese, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Obesity can lead to type 2 diabetes, a growing chronic ailment once known as adult-onset but now increasingly seen in youths who lack access to healthy food and activity choices. Diabetes can cause heart disease, strokes, amputations and, when advanced, can bring on early death. Latino, African American and other ethnic communities often see higher rates of obesity, along with other social and health inequities, health experts say.
Already, some of the youths enrolled in the program are prediabetic, with higher than normal blood pressure and high lipids levels, said Dr. John Struthers, a pediatrician who helped develop the program.
Though the program is free, it’s in high demand and competitive. Families are screened before being allowed to participate.
Every 10 weeks, 20 new participants are added to the 20-week program, but not before parents sign contracts, agreeing to support their child, attend the sessions and provide healthy meal choices. Family involvement key
Making the program a family affair is one of the benefits that Tiffany Romano, 16, a participant since late April, most enjoys.
“I like how the family is involved and how we do activities,” said Tiffany. “We have family meetings, take family walks and learn about food together.”
When Tiffany attends weekly sessions, her father, Bryant Romano, is there to back her up. At age 50, her father said he’s been watching his health, too, and he has shed 48 pounds while accompanying his daughter.
“I think the key to this program is understanding foods and supporting our children,” Romano said. “As parents, we’ve got to first lead by example, so we’re doing this together as a family.”
The most surprising fact that Tiffany has learned so far, she says, is the extent to which sugar exists in processed foods, and that “low-fat” processed foods often have sugar added to fool the taste buds. Her father said having kids learn to translate grams into teaspoons of sugar is invaluable in helping them identify high-caloric foods.
In keeping with Dr. Struthers’ philosophy to “try not to talk about losing weight but being healthy,” Tiffany said her goal is “to be healthy and more active.” She rises at 5 a.m., works out, plays basketball and flag football, and has stuck to a regimen of chicken breasts, broccoli, protein drinks and salads.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making modest behavior changes such as improving food choices and upping physical activity to at least 150 minutes per week is enough to help participants lose 5 to 7 percent of their body weight. And that’s enough to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 58 percent in people at high risk.
Last week, Struthers and his team had the youths taste-test fruits and vegetables such as jicama, edamame, blueberries, cherry tomatoes and yellow bell pepper, and compare them to white bread, red fruit snacks, cheese puffs and blue fruit snacks.
Nutritionist Janet Belcher told the kids that red fruit snacks have an artificial dye that amounts to a chemical.
“Has anybody ever seen a Red Lake #5 tree?” Belcher asked the group, identifying the fruit snack dye.
Romano, Tiffany’s father, said he appreciates that Kaiser’s program focuses on prevention by helping youths read ingredient labels.
“All in all, I think everybody should learn to read labels like they taught the kids,” Romano said. “Just by sitting in the sessions, I now understand what’s in the food I put in my mouth.”