Zeroing in on childhood obesity

This is a post by Dr. Julie Boman, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

The fact that September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month means that childhood obesity is well accepted as an epidemic in our country. Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota recently released a white paper that examined the issue of childhood obesity. The assessment revealed a startling conclusion from an obesity expert with the World Health Organization that “the die is cast by the age of five,” referring to the prenatal and early childhood determinants of a child’s likelihood of becoming obese.

The frustration is that we know the causes and even the solutions, but the pathway to success is far from clear.  We know that getting kids to exercise more, eat healthier and avoid too much screen time are part of the equation. However, when we add in the factors of underlying health disparities, food deserts, the need for family-based interventions or acceptance of healthier prenatal and early childhood practices, the answers quickly become far more complicated.

For me, the complicated nature of the problem simply means that we need more creativity and flexibility in how we tackle the problem. As someone who has devoted her career to the health interests of children, I can’t stand by and watch more children come into Children’s clinic with conditions that, 20 years ago, were almost exclusively associated with adults: Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and liver disease.

That’s why earlier this year, in partnership with the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and supported by Children’s, I spearheaded an initiative focused on providing support and resources to the Minneapolis Latino community to foster healthier eating and more physical activity. Called Vida Sana Minneapolis, the initiative is built on several guiding principles that we believe are critical to the success of the program:

  • Community-based: Engaging community partners in the planning and implementation of the program.
  • Family-based: Understanding the powerful influence family dynamics have on a child, particularly if the goal is to prevent problems in the first few years of a child’s life.
  • Culturally-appropriate: We can’t assume a one-size fits all approach.
  • Responsive. Letting families shape a program that they need rather than imposing a program on them.

Initially supported by a grant from the National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality, we’ve built a coalition of 15 different private and public organizations that have a vested interest and desire to promote healthy lifestyles with the Latino community. The response so far is inspiring. At our kick-off event in July, attendance far exceeded expectations with more than 200 people participating in a mini health fair that included health screenings and education on nutrition and physical activity. More importantly, we’ve seen a sustained interest from Latino families and other community interests. After just two months of weekly evening events that include Zumba classes and activities for children, we’re already expanding our programming to include nutrition classes for families, Zumba and yoga for kids and are considering an additional night of Zumba for adults.

The growth doesn’t stop there. Thanks to a newly-formed partnership between Children’s and HealthPartners focused on childhood obesity, the Vida Sana project will continue to build by broadening our reach, more active recruitment within the community and incorporating elements such as BMI screenings and physician engagement. Vida Sana continues to gain interest from potential partners and others interested in highlighting how we’ve approached the program. As proud as we are of that growth, this program alone won’t solve the problem.

The bottom line is, when it comes to the issue of childhood obesity, we can’t afford to wait for the perfect solution. By building on the lessons learned from previous efforts and being flexible to allow for real-time learning and adjustment, programs like Vida Sana can make a difference. Yes, the problem is severe but, as the last several months working on this project have shown me, there’s also reason to be optimistic for one fundamental reason: parents want their children to be healthy. There is no greater motivation; our job is to empower them to make the choices that will achieve that goal.

For more information about Vida Sana, contact Dr. Julie Boman at julie.boman@childrensmn.org. For more information about Children’s childhood obesity efforts, contact Anna Youngerman at anna.youngerman@childrensmn.org.

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