Overcoming childhood obesity

J Simons
Feb 14,2013

Looking Back...
Jayme Simonis of Albany, now 28, recalls being overweight for as far back as she can remember.

“I’ve always been heavy, and many of my memories involve the struggles with my weight,” said Simonis. “It’s something I’ve been dealing with my entire life.”

Growing up in a town of just 500 people in Eastern Oregon, Simonis said living in a low-income household where fresh fruits and vegetables were largely absent played a role in being overweight. She, along with her parents and younger brother, regularly ate meals consisting of processed foods. She was also rewarded as a child with fast food and sweets.

“There were and are lots of weight issues in my family,” she said. “I know now that we had very poor eating habits.”

Carissa Cousins, MD, a pediatrician with Samaritan Pediatrics in Corvallis, said she sees patients as young as toddlers experiencing the consequences of unhealthy eating habits.

“We talk to parents with children as young as infants about the importance of eating healthy,” said Cousins. “It’s critically important to start kids off on the right track.”

In fact, said Cousins, statistics show that children who become overweight in adolescence have a 70 percent chance of being overweight as adults. And the risks that come with being overweight or obese are serious: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, orthopedic problems and depression, among others.

Cardiologist Sridhar Vijayasekaran, MD, of the Samaritan Heart & Vascular Institute, said that childhood obesity creates a troublesome link to premature heart disease.

“According to the CDC, 70 percent of obese 5- to 17-year-olds have at least one risk factor for heart disease including hypertension, diabetes and hypercholesterolemia,” said Vijayasekaran. “So heart disease occurs prematurely in this group. Another recent study in young men 16 to 20 years of age found that being overweight and obese carried the same subsequent mortality risk as moderate and heavy smoking.”

But for Simonis and other young people like her, she wasn’t concerned about how excess weight would affect her long-term physical health. She was burdened with the emotional side effects, remembering not having close friends and feeling uncomfortable in her own skin. She still has memories of herself in second grade, watching the girls she longed to be close to doing gymnastics during breaks at school. She felt too heavy and too insecure to join them.

“I cried a lot and always felt my weight made me different,” she said. “I dreaded school shopping for clothes, and the idea that a boy would like me never felt like an option.”

Fortunately, Simonis’ confidence began to rise as she entered high school. She had always been an active person — riding bikes and swimming — and as she became more involved in sports she forged new friendships and gained more self-esteem.“My parents were empathetic about how my weight affected my emotional health and always worked to instill confidence in me,” recalled Simonis. “Once I got into high school, sports made me part of a group and I felt better about myself — but my weight was always on my mind.”

Simonis tried many diets as a teen and young adult — even losing 30 pounds one summer during high school when she “ate nothing and exercised all the time.” In 2002, she moved to Corvallis to attend
OSU. There, her weight struggles continued.“I was unhappy and not taking care of myself,” she said.

Looking Ahead...
A new health issue began to emerge after Simonis graduated from college, when chronic headaches started to affect her quality of life. She was ready to take action to change her life and improve her health.Simonis made an appointment with Kyle Homertgen, DO, who practices preventive osteopathic family medicine at Samaritan
Heartspring Wellness Center in Albany.“Dr. Homertgen looked at my whole health to get to the bottom of my
headaches,” said Simonis. “He suspected I could have a food allergy, so he put me on a 30-day elimination diet and recommended that I increase my exercise.”

By eliminating certain foods, Simonis began to lose weight and feel better overall. She started following the “17-Day Diet,” which taught her more about the basics of nutrition and sparked weight loss. Her headaches have eased and her energy is up. She’s lost 60 pounds in the past year.

“I’ve been trying to lose weight all my life and it’s finally clicked for me,” she said. “One of the most important things that has helped me is that I’ve really worked to break my emotional connection with food. I take it one day at a time and I talk to myself a lot. It’s not just as simple as diet and exercise — it’s about being strong mentally.”

Cardiologist Vijayasekaran agreed that the obesity epidemic is about more than just diet and exercise.

“We need a change in our lifestyle, not just a change in diet,” he said. “Things like sensible portion size, reducing simple sugars like soda and eating more fruits and vegetables should go along with increasing activity. Changing environmental cues, like simply serving food in smaller plates and affecting behavioral patterns, like not having distractions such as television during dinner time are as important as the type of meal you eat.”

While Simonis is proud of her accomplishments, and knows that both her physical and emotional health are stronger, she hopes that fewer children will experience the same weight struggles she’s gone through.

“Parents are busy and tired and it’s hard to always make healthy choices,” she said. “I love my parents very much, but I wish my brother and I would have had a healthier start on life.”

Pediatrician Cousins echoed that sentiment.

“Parents can prevent obesity in their children,” said Cousins. “It’s important to limit screen time (television  and computer) to two hours or less a day, exercise at least an hour a day, provide no sugary drinks and ensure kids get five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Overweight adults are more likely to have overweight children, so setting a healthy example is critical. The good news is that obesity is preventable and parents have a lot of power to ensure a healthy future for their children.”