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Girl's odyssey shows challenge of fighting obesity

Obese teens riskier for diseases once confined to adults

First lady Michelle Obama claps while waiting to speak about childhood obesity at the YMCA in Alexandria, Virginia on Thursday.

First lady Michelle Obama claps while waiting to speak about childhood obesity at the YMCA in Alexandria, Virginia on Thursday.

Paris Woods is hardly a poster child for the obesity epidemic. Lining up dripping wet with kids on her swim team, she is a blend of girlish chunkiness and womanly curves.
In street clothes - roomy pink sweats or skimpy tank tops revealing broad, brown swimmers' shoulders - the teen blends in with her friends, a fresh-faced, robust-looking All-American girl.
That is the problem.
Like nearly one-third of American teens, Paris Woods is overweight. Her doctor worries her weight will creep up into the obesity range. One out of four black girls her age is obese.
The more than 11 million U.S. teens who are overweight or obese face an increased risk for diseases once confined to adults, like diabetes, artery damage and liver trouble. Those problems along with high blood pressure and high cholesterol are showing up increasingly in children.
Paris' pediatrician urged her to participate in an intensive experiment. The goal? To see if a yearlong program of weekly sessions with a nutritionist, exercise trainer and doctor, all preaching major lifestyle changes, could keep the 14-year-old from becoming obese.
It is the kind of intensive help that the influential U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says can work for teens.
Through successes, setbacks and even a bout with swine flu, Paris tried sticking with it. Skipped sessions stretched the program from 12 months into 20, but she did not quit.
Did it work? Stay tuned - her experience is a reflection of many families' struggles with obesity.
During Paris' endeavor:
Burger King introduced a 1,360-calorie triple Whopper sandwich; McDonald's profit climbed to US$4.55 billion; and KFC introduced its Kentucky Grilled Chicken "for health-conscious customers."
Torrid, a nationwide chain of clothes for plus-size teen girls, opened its 156th store, up from six in 2001.
First Lady Michelle Obama - who grew up a few miles from Paris Woods' Chicago home - made fighting childhood obesity her pet project. "We have a chance to change the fate of the next generation if we get on it," she said recently.
The options in Paris' middle-class mostly black South Side neighborhood are limited to a bounty of fast food. Paris has a taste for fried chicken, bacon cheeseburgers and Snickers bars, and sometimes little willpower. Swimming helps her fight that. The sport has been a passion since she was a little girl.
Her parents, Dinah and Parris Woods, wanted their three daughters to be active, to keep them busy and out of trouble. "You can't just do nothing," says Dinah, 47, a former fitness instructor.
In Paris' tween years, her weight started to creep up. She developed early and classmates made fun of her blossoming bust and swimmers' shoulders. "They started calling me fat," Paris says softly. It made her very self-conscious.
So she wears two suits to swim. They are a drag on her swimming times, but help camouflage her curves.
Pulling on a blue swim cap and stretching goggles tight over her dark eyes, Paris shallow-dives into the pool where her club team practices.
With smooth, strong strokes, she glides effortlessly through the water, where no one comments on her size or tells her to watch what she eats. In the water, she says, "I stay calm. It takes all the stress away."
Paris' two college-age sisters ballooned into obesity in their teens. The family's pediatrician, Dr. Cathy Joyce, says that often happens - teens put on weight, go off to college, and come back obese.
So she asked Paris to join an obesity prevention study at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center. Because shedding weight is tough if the people in charge of filling the fridge are not on board, parents must enroll, too. Paris' parents also are overweight and have borderline high blood pressure. They readily signed up.
That was unusual. Joyce has had a hard time recruiting. Her goal is 50 patients; she has only 31. Some parents are not willing to change the family's lifestyle; others do not think their overweight kids are fat.
Joyce says parents often do not notice until teens are very obese, 23kg (50 pounds) or so too much.
"Reality shows like 'The Biggest Loser' definitely have not helped," she said. They have skewed the public's perception of what overweight looks like, featuring people who are dangerously obese. The show's 2010 cast, including a 240kg (526-pound) Chicago-area DJ, is its heaviest ever.
At 1.5m and 72kg (5 feet 4 inches and 158 pounds), Paris started the program about 9kg (20 pounds) overweight. That was April 2008, just before her 15th birthday.
One of Paris' sisters had become a vegetarian, so the family decided to do the same. The hospital program does not require a specific diet but recommends healthy grains and lots of fruits and vegetables while avoiding unhealthy fats. Patients also are taught to read food labels and to eat three meals a day.
The idea is to choose a lifelong healthy way of eating.
It was all new to the Woodses, a tight-knit, busy family who used to skip breakfast and snack on the run.
Paris' mom likes to cook and the new regime lets her experiment with tofu, nuts and soy cheese. It also means shunning old family favorites, including ham and macaroni and cheese.
Their diet sometimes requires a trip to Whole Foods 13km (8 miles) from home, and it is costlier, but Dinah Woods says she would prefer paying now, rather than later with her health.
The change was drastic, but also seemed exciting. Paris loved the avocado sandwiches and veggie burgers her mom packed for lunch, even if some friends turned up their noses.
At their weekly group sessions at Dr. Joyce's office, the Woods family weighs in and gets eating tips and encouragement from a nutritionist. In the waiting room, there are half-hour workout sessions. Trainer Scott Mathews leads kids and parents through lunges, sit-ups, leg lifts and other exercises they are urged to do at home.
The Woodses usually come on Wednesday evenings. It is not a perfect time - everyone is tired after school and work. Dinah is a sales counselor and Parris, 46, a technician for hospital TV systems, attends night school. But they all gamely roll out exercise mats and dive in.
A session in late 2008 had Paris on her back, pedaling her legs and breathing hard. She rolls her eyes when Mathews asks if she is getting tired.
"I know you're tired. You just have to push when you're tired," he says.
Besides swimming most days, Paris likes to run with her two dogs, and tries to walk, instead of ride, when she can. Her parents walk a few miles several mornings before work. It was relatively easy to stick to the regimen during that first summer and fall.
By October, Paris' weight was down 3.5kg (8 pounds), to 68kg (150 pounds), and she had lost 7.6cm (3 inches) from her waist. Her parents also have shed pounds, and all three say they have more energy.
Paris has lost her taste for meat. "I'm just like, ew, it's so nasty," she says
In November, the Thanksgiving feast was the first big test. No turkey, ham, biscuits, cheesecake or chocolate cake like Dinah used to make. Instead, Paris says, it is "tofu everything," plus lots of vegetables and wheat rolls. Could Dinah's lemon cake made with egg substitute possibly taste as good as her traditional desserts? "No, not really," Paris says laughing, "but I had to eat something."
As for Paris? Despite her disappointment, she says the program changed her for the better. She knows she has to control her eating and keep active; she even is thinking about training for a triathlon. "I know what I'm supposed to do," she says. And she knows that if she works hard at it, every day, she can succeed. "I believe I really can."
Lindsey Tanner is an Associated Press medical writer.

Updated : 2021-10-19 12:51 GMT+08:00