How would you support a child trying to live healthier?

Daivd Ludwig, MD, MPH

Every month the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) publishes an article called Clinical Crossroads, where a patient case is presented and medical professionals are invited to share their thoughts on how they might treat that person. A few weeks later the case is presented again, this time with commentary from an expert who specializes in the medical condition profiled in the article.

The most recent Clinical Crossroads was written by David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital. Ludwig’s case focuses around Ms K, a 14 year-old girl struggling to lose weight.

Unlike typical medical case studies that focus on diagnosis and treatment of acute illness, Clinical Crossroads often takes into account the ethical, emotional and economic issues related to the patient’s health and treatment. All three of these elements figure heavily in Ms K’s story, making it ideal for the Clinical Crossroads treatment.

But as Ludwig himself would tell you, overcoming childhood obesity isn’t just the job of pediatricians and their patients; parents play a vital role in helping children achieve and maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle too. With that in mind, we are presenting Dr. Ludwig’s Clinical Crossroads piece to you on Thriving and asking for your input as parents.

Given the following situation, what are some ways Ms K and her parents could work as a team to help her live healthier? If you were her mother or father, what would you do to support her efforts?

Ms K is an obese 14-year-old girl who is struggling with weight loss. She lives in the greater metropolitan Boston area. Ms K began to gain weight at age 8 years. Over the past 7 years, her weight has gone up by 20 to 30 lb annually … She reports trying various weight loss programs but either she did not follow through or they did not work. She has never lost more than 5 lb with any focused effort.

On a typical day, Ms K skips breakfast, so her school lunch is her first meal of the day. She eats whatever is served there, often something “greasy,” with a small salad and chocolate milk. When she comes home from school, she begins to snack on “good” junk food. Over the course of the afternoon, she might have several of the following: baked chips, a cereal bar or 2, 2 or more “100-calorie packs,” a glass of (1%) milk, crackers, or pasta with cheese. She eats dinner with her parents, which is often fried chicken, pasta with cheese, or a hamburger. There are rarely vegetables on the plate. After dinner, she will routinely eat more, ingesting 1 to 3 snacks while working on her computer. She does not routinely eat dessert at dinner and does not drink sugar-sweetened beverages. She does not watch television regularly. She used to ride a horse several times a week but has not done so in several years. Her only regular activity is walking home from school, about mile daily.

Ms K was told by her pediatrician that she needed to lose weight or she might develop diabetes. She has experienced harassment at school and online related to her obesity. There has also been significant tension between Ms K and her parents—especially her mother—about her eating habits and progressive weight gain.

   Ms K’s mother was interviewed for the piece, and said the following:

“Probably the biggest challenge that my husband and I have had is backing off. I constantly watch her, correct her, and stop her from doing things. I am almost obsessive about what she eats, what she doesn’t eat. My husband and I went to a counselor locally, and he was the one to tell us we need to back off because it is making things worse. That’s been the biggest challenge. I think I feel like I am the food police sometimes.”

Please share your ideas with us on how families can work together to improve eating habits by commenting on the blog, leaving a message on our Facebook wall or connecting with us @ThrivingKids on Twitter.

To speak with a member of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital please visit their website.