“I’m worried that my son’s baby fat isn’t baby fat,” said my friend Kelly. “He’s 20 pounds overweight, and he feels bad about it. I want to find a way to help.”
“When kids start to exercise and lose weight, it boosts their energy and their self-esteem. They feel better, both physically and emotionally,” said certified personal trainer and nutritionist Efrain Guerrero of weightlossandfitnessforkids.com (760-554-7063). “We offer an eight-week health-and-fitness program for kids. We meet every Tuesday from 6 until 7 p.m. at Hazard Center. My classes include healthy meal plans, healthy snack plans, motivation, and a lot of accountability.”
The classes, he explained, are run in small groups of ten kids; the average age of attendees is 8–15. However, he noted, “It’s important that parents are there and involved, because kids don’t usually feed themselves. And 90 percent of overweight kids have at least one parent who is overweight. It’s important that there is a family decision to make a lifestyle change.”
In the first class, “the kids learn about nutrition and how to eat small, healthy portions. I tell them, ‘Half the plate should be vegetables. Then there should be a protein. Eat things like fruit and nuts.’ I help them make small changes.” He gives recipes and meal plans. “I make a smoothie in class with kale and spinach and fruit. Then I have everyone try it. At first, they don’t want to because it’s green. But once they taste the fruit, they realize it’s delicious. Once they stop drinking milkshakes, the smoothie becomes a real treat.”
The kids also start in exercising, “and they have homework. I recommend that both kids and parents have 30 minutes to an hour of exercise every day. I have a system of high-intensity four-minute exercises. People start with one, then build to two or three. I find ways to make it fun and quick.”
During the week, Guerrero stays in contact, offering both support and coaching. “I’m communicating with both kids and parents via phone, email, or Facebook. I’ll also go to the family’s home, and if they want, go through cupboards and fridges with them. I’ll show them what is healthy and what isn’t. I teach them how to be really supportive, how to make changes in lifestyle.”
Cost is $50 a class for eight weeks, and Guerrero offers a money-back guarantee. “I encourage people to call me before they sign up,” he concluded. “I want to get to know them, answer their questions, make sure they’re comfortable with the program.”
Elsewhere, Dr. Wendy Hileman of Healthy Adventures Foundation (619-466-4386); is working with the Spring Valley Library and the Teen Center to address childhood obesity through positive approaches to food. “We offer a free, hands-on cooking class once a month. It’s generally for kids age 10 to 14, but we’ve had younger. The kids learn to make healthy snacks and meals, and we try to introduce them to new flavors. It’s all vegetarian because we want to promote consumption of healthy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Once, we made butternut squash mac ’n’ cheese, with squash substituting for cream. The kids were blown away because they didn’t expect to like it, but they did. We don’t make them eat what they make, but we do require them to taste it. They don’t even have to swallow. The reason is that it takes 14 times for a kid to get accustomed to a new flavor, so if we can get something in their mouths 14 times, the odds are they’ll like it. Also, they’re more likely to like it if they’ve prepared it.”
Hileman also offers game shows that teach kids about nutrition, exercise, and stress management. Some feature a quiz format, and some a Fear Factor–style engagement with strange foodstuffs.
Finally, Healthy Adventures offers health coaching to individuals, groups, and families. “We’ll take on kids individually on a case-by-case basis. Cost is based on a sliding scale, up to $60 an hour. The most important thing is for parents to exercise with their kids and for people to take time to sit down and eat at least one meal a day together away from distractions, so they can really enjoy the meal.”
UCSD and the Center for Healthy Eating & Activity Research offer free ongoing weight-loss programs for children, adolescents, and families.