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Wed, June 26

Area lacks resources for overweight teens

Illustration by David Beaty/Courier

Illustration by David Beaty/Courier

The Daily Courier

Overweight teens stuff themselves with laxatives and stick their fingers down their throats to purge their bulging bodies of food just as often as their skinny, anorexic counterparts do, says a Prescott doctor who sees at least four overweight young people a week in her practice on Montezuma Street.

"It's a huge epidemic here in town," says Dr. Susan Godman of Partners in Health Care, Naturally.

A University of Minnesota study in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine backs up her observations. Doctors consider such tactics as eating disorders that can lead to long-term health problems.

Godman estimates that in the Prescott area alone the problem of overweight teens has quadrupled in the past 25 years, however they and their parents have few cost-effective places to turn to for help.

The phone book lists some private weight loss doctors and some commercial weight loss companies, but neither Yavapai Regional Medical Center nor Yavapai County Community Health Services offer any programs specifically targeting teen weight loss, spokeswomen at those two organizations say.

"There is a shortage of program offerings that are publicly funded," said YRMC spokeswoman Robbie Nicol.

"If anyone out there knows of any grants we could apply for, we'd welcome it," said Tamra Larrabee, spokeswoman for the county health service.

Parents generally rebuffed one recent attempt by school nurses in the Humboldt Unified School District to help overweight teens. The nurses sent letters home to parents of overweight teens, explaining body mass index measurements and offering health tips. The letters angered some parents, who called, saying, "You sent my kid a fat letter," said nurse Linda Schaetzle at the Bradshaw Mountain High School west campus. The negative parental attitudes surprised the nurses, and they discontinued the letters, Schaetzle said.

Kevin Kapp, superintendent of Prescott Unified School District, said his district does not have any programs specifically offering help for overweight teens.

But, he said, two or three years ago the district switched its food snacks to healthier ones. And four or five years ago - with seed money from the local YMCA - the district brought back twice-weekly gym classes in its elementary schools.

The study coming out in November examined 2,516 adolescents, first in 1998 and 1999 and then again five years later. Of the overweight youngsters in the study, more than one-third of the girls reported using extreme weight control tactics such as vomiting and purging themselves with laxatives.

The study asked adolescents about what they eat, how they exercise, their exposure to weight-related media messages and whether they participated in family meals. What turned out to be especially important was whether peers or family members teased them about their weight. Teasing from family members was more hurtful in the long run, the study showed.

Carolyn Ryan, a dietician at Rosewood Women's Eating Disorder Clinic in Wickenburg said the study's findings were no surprise. She said parental attitudes have a lot to do with whether children gain excessive weight.

"Childhood obesity seems to emanate from a parent's concern over body weight," Ryan said in a phone interview. "Eating well and being a good role model is helpful, but harassing the kid about their weight is not a good thing."

Sneak eating is the automatic response to parental chiding, Ryan noted.

The youngest people she works with at the Wickenburg clinic are 18-year-olds. Over the years, she said, they have told her they start purging themselves using either laxatives or self-induced vomiting between the ages of 12 and 14.

Statistics from several different websites vary slightly, but overall, they show the number of overweight young people in the United States is soaring. According to overweightteen.com, about 15.3 percent of children ages 6-11 and 15.5 percent of adolescents ages 12-19 were overweight in 2000. The site claims that the percentage of overweight children and adolescents has more than doubled since the early '70s. And in 1999-2000, more than 10 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 5 were overweight, up from 7 percent in 1994.

Previous generations thought that children simply would outgrow their so-called "baby fat." But studies show that obesity in the young has a 40 percent to 70 percent persistence rate. So as chubby children get older they tend to stay chubby. When they do, they face an increased risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and social and psychological problems such as poor self-esteem.

Godman and Ryan agree with the study's finding that family members teasing youngsters about being fat is one of the strongest predictors of risk for being overweight.

Most teens are struggling with poor self-image and raging hormones, Godman explained. At the same time, they are trying hard to figure out their place in the world.

"When you're not really sure how the world sees you, you're kind of at a loss," she said.

What helps youngsters avoid overeating may seem old-fashioned, but it works, Godman said: Have family dinners together.

That also is the good news in the new study: Sitting down and eating together as a family - and being a good role model during these meals by offering and choosing healthy foods - helps reduce the number of fat teens.

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