It’s been called an epidemic. According to statistics from the Childhood Obesity Foundation, over 26 per cent of Canadian children and youth are overweight or obese, and those numbers seem to be growing. Aside from genetics, there are other contributing factors such as diet, lack of exercise, changes in family lifestyles, reduced physical education in schools, and an increase in sedentary activities like watching television. and playing video games.
As with adults, obesity can lead to a range of serious illnesses, such as Type II diabetes or heart disease as well as low self-esteem. For children, the emotional impact is even greater. Kids who are overweight may be bullied or teased by their peers or they may feel pressure to be thin like media role models. Parents can inadvertently add to the negative messages by dwelling on a child’s weight issues or experimenting with diets.
Children who are obese don’t need fad diets and helpful tips from friends and relatives on how to lose weight. They, and their families, need a trusted source of support and information and knowledgeable advice. That’s the aim of the Lifestyle Clinic, which began operating in the fall of 2008 at Brampton Civic Hospital. Designed for children between 10 and 18 years, the Lifestyle Clinic offers nutrition and lifestyle information, access to paediatricians, group fitness activity and even social work support to help kids build self-image and change the habits that lead to obesity.
Parental involvement is crucial to ensuring that healthy eating becomes the norm for the whole family. Ana Paz, whose two young sons have a number of health issues, believes the clinic has made her much more nutritionally savvy. “I never used to read labels. I just bought whatever was on sale,” she says. “Now I look for foods that are low fat and zero fat!” Her family has also participated in workshops on dealing with social interaction and the importance of exercise.
The talks are courtesy of the Region of Peel’s public health department. “What’s unique about this program is the partnerships,” says Judy Gibson-Stoliar, Dietitian at the Lifestyle Clinic. “Peel Health comes in to do workshops that cover everything from bullying to positive body image. They even do a grocery tour at Fortinos. And there’s an arrangement with a recreation centre to provide optional fitness walks just for kids from the Lifestyle Clinic.” Support group workshops – including a cooking workshop run by the clinic nurse – are offered in the evening and on weekends to accommodate school hours and parents’ schedules. Most groups are geared specifically to either boys or girls so that patients feel comfortable talking about their weight issues.
Gagandeep, a twelve-year-old patient at the clinic, finds that the program has sparked her interest in being more physically active. She enjoys the group walks at the recreation centre, and together with a healthier diet, has seen a significant drop in her body mass index.
Patients are referred to the Lifestyle Clinic by their family doctors or paediatricians. At the first visit, they see the dietitian, attend a nutrition class and participate in an outdoor walk. On the second visit, they are checked by a paediatrician, and after that they come in for follow-up visits every couple of months for approximately a year.
So far, the response to the clinic has been immediate and positive, with an average of 15 to 20 new patients every month. “We’re seeing positive changes in the children’s health,” says Gibson-Stoliar. “That’s the ultimate goal.”