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Battling childhood obesity

Program targets family change

By Dawn Brazell
Public Relations
Janet Carter stands in front of the classroom with a hefty, yellow blob in her hands.
“This is what five pounds of fat looks like,” she said, letting some of the children participating in MUSC’s Heart Health program touch it.
“Ewwwww,” exclaims one of the girls, shrinking away from it.
Janet Carter teaches young people how diet effects health.

Carter, a registered dietitian and Heart Health coordinator, points to one section of the mass and tells them that would be equivalent to losing a pound. “Even a couple of pounds can make a difference.”
Showing charts of food labels and types of fat, she teaches the young people more about how to make healthy food choices during the one-hour group session. They finish with a game where they pretend to be either HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins) or LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins) as they battle to either clog or unclog an artery with sponges that they stick to a carpeted wall. As Carter increases the number of HDL players, the arteries get less clogged. The children get to learn the lesson, have fun and break a sweat.
Brooke Ramsey, 16, loves the program. She has lost 15 pounds since July. “I think it’s great. I was surprised at how quickly I could lose weight. It’s helping me to make better choices.”
Ramsey got involved with the program because she’s at risk for developing diabetes. She’s in the marching band at Fort Dorchester High School and said she already can tell a difference in her stamina. Knowing what she does now about nutrition has made it easier to withstand peer pressure about eating the wrong foods.
“It has changed my life.”
Erica Callaway, left, and her mother Licia Hendriks enjoy taking the classes together.

Erica Callaway, 11, agreed. She has been doing the program almost four years and finds the group sessions help her stay motivated to stick to healthy lifestyle habits. Her mother, Licia Hendriks, said she enjoys attending, too, even though they’ve been in the program long enough to know the information. It helps hearing it again, she said.
Heart Health, which started in 2004, is both the pediatric weight management program of the MUSC Children’s Hospital and the preventive cardiology service of the Children’s Heart Center. Participants include any child or adolescent who has abnormal weight gain or associated cardiovascular risk factors, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or pre-diabetes.
The program is medically monitored by Melissa Henshaw, M.D., who also is conducting a Pediatric Metabolic Syndrome Study of children ages 4 to 21. The study’s goal is to investigate the cluster of cardiovascular risk factors that many obese children face, including developing elevated blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
“These risk factors comprise the metabolic syndrome, and its presence can put individuals at heightened risk for cardiovascular disease. We need to learn more about the root causes of the metabolic syndrome through comprehensive research so that we can provide the best tools possible to help affected families.”
Henshaw said to be able to help obese children the most effectively, Heart Health focuses on helping the entire family be able to create change.
“All patients we see face their own obstacles to weight management, and our job is to seek out and address those obstacles one step at a time, empowering families to make lifestyle changes that will work for them and last over time.”
Obesity is a chronic, complex disease process, and there are many precipitating factors including genetics, but the more the program can teach families about how to make the best possible nutrition and activity choices, and how to modify lifestyle behaviors to promote health, the better off children will be as they enter adulthood and begin their own families, she said.
She’s very excited to be a partner in the new Southeastern Virtual Institute for Health Equity and Wellness, under the direction of Sabra Slaughter, Ph.D. “Our vision in joining SE VIEW is to build upon existing bonds with school-based outreach programs like the Lean Team, and create new partnerships with other community-based outreach efforts like Healthy People in Healthy Communities, to bring even more obese children into Heart Health.”
Carter’s also excited about that goal. There are about 100 families participating in Heart Health, but they’d like to be able to reach more families and establish satellite services. 
“We’re really the only clinic-based program that exists in South Carolina doing this sort of thing,” Carter said.

Children play a game to reinforce the heart-healthy principles they just learned.

What makes it special as a clinical program is that it’s physician supervised, features educational group sessions on nutrition, and includes her meeting with the children every two weeks to do personalized goals and nutritional counseling. The children receive blood work and clinical measurements, including bodyfat and blood pressure, and have the option of attending weekly fitness sessions held at The Citadel.
Carter said one of the program’s main goals is to raise awareness of the extent of childhood obesity and the array of chronic conditions that it can cause. “I find a lot of families who come into Heart Health just don’t realize the extent of the problem. Parents are so used to seeing large children that they don’t look big anymore. A child will come in to see me who is obese, and the parent will say, ‘Oh, he just has a few extra pounds, but he’s not too big.’ They’re just completely unaware. Raising awareness is crucial.”
Whether it’s children or adults, though, confronting obesity is a complicated process. Sometimes the children aren’t ready to make the change, but she knows she’s giving them the tools they can use for when they decide it’s time to change.
“Heart Health is changing kid’s lives one kid at a time. It’s just doing what we can, small step by small step. We’re affecting their health for years to come. I know it’s making a huge difference.”

How You Can Help

A heart healthy fundraiser meal will be held at 7 p.m., Oct. 14 at McCrady’s Restaurant. Tickets are $40.

The Pediatric Metabolic Syndrome Study offers obese children and adolescents free evaluations that include nutrition assessments, fasting labs, body composition scans, and echocardiograms.

Call 792-4717, e-mail, or visit

Friday, Oct. 8, 2010

The Catalyst Online is published weekly by the MUSC Office of Public Relations for the faculty, employees and students of the Medical University of South Carolina. The Catalyst Online editor, Kim Draughn, can be reached at 792-4107 or by email, Editorial copy can be submitted to The Catalyst Online and to The Catalyst in print by fax, 792-6723, or by email to To place an ad in The Catalyst hardcopy, call Island Publications at 849-1778, ext. 201.