Be Well: Fighting Fat Becomes a Family Affair

The Byrne family poses near their vegetable garden. From left to right: David, Laura, Maritza, and D.J.
The Byrne family poses near their vegetable garden. From left to right: David, Laura, Maritza, and D.J.

BARNETT: Sarah, we've heard a lot about obesity the past year. Ideastream most recently explored the topic of being young and obese. What caught your attention about the challenges facing our kids?

TRIBBLE: I think for us adults, we look fondly back at our childhood summers as a time when we rode our bikes, climbed trees and generally never stopped roaming our neighborhoods and back yards from dawn until dusk. So when I saw that a new study found that kids gain MORE weight during the summer than during the school year, I was perplexed.

BARNETT: Yeah, what is going on now with kids that wasn't years ago?

TRIBBLE: Some of it's not surprising. We've heard a lot about kids being sedentary today because they watch more television and play videogames. That's even worse during the summer months when they are home with nothing to do. And, frankly, many of us don't want our kids freely out and about in the neighborhood so we don't let them leave the house.

In my reporting, I met a remarkable family. The Byrnes live on Cleveland's near West side and they home school their two kids. Laura is 13 and D.J. is 11. Both kids are heavy and they were told earlier this year that they had high cholesterol.

BARNETT: Did they really have high cholesterol at such a young age?

TRIBBLE: Yes. And that was a wake up call for the family. When that report came in, the dad was still reeling from the news that he was struggling with obesity. His own weight was near 300 pounds. David Byrnes immigrated from Ireland years ago and has has a beautiful accent. Let's listen to him talk about the family:

"I didn't think of my children as obese, but then when I looked at myself and at others, I thought, Oh no. It is true. Time to make some changes," David Byrne.

BARNETT: What did they do?

TRIBBLE: They changed their diet a bit - not going to fast food after church, for example. They planted a garden to get more fresh vegetables in their meals. And the kids also joined a fitness camp at MetroHealth.But to get an idea of exactly how different that was than last summer, I asked 13-year-old Laura what she would have been if not in camp. She's kind of quiet. Instead of voicing an answer she first grabbed her iPad and held it up in the air and then added …

"Watching TV. Playing outside, helping my parents. But mostly watching TV. Laugh," Laura.

BARNETT: That sounds pretty typical for a teen. Other than sending the kids to a fitness camp like the Byrnes, what can parents do?

TRIBBLE: I interviewed a few experts for this story, and I was surprised at an emerging theme. The experts and, for that matter, the parents I talked with all said it's up to the parents to make a difference. Eileen Kennedy at the Cleveland Clinic, in particular, really emphasized this. Here she is talking about it.

" The younger they are, in kindergarten and first and second grade, these kids are still craving time with Mom and Dad and they can be out doing with - physically," Kennedy says.

TRIBBLE: And what was really touching, is what the kids had to say about this. When I asked 11-year-old D.J. about the best part of his new diet and exercise routine, I was surprised by his answer.

"Well, I'm definitely getting more sleep. I feel sharper, more on the spot. And I think I'm interacting with my parents more," D.J. says.

BARNETT: Now, that's a consequence of being a healthier family that you don't necessarily expect. And exercising, growing their own food, and preparing fresh meals seems like a big time commitment for the family.

TRIBBLE: Yes. It is. But both families I talked to said they wouldn't want to go back. This is what the father, David said near the end of my visit to his beautiful home...

"It becomes the new normal. Who would have thought that children enjoy drinking carrot and celery juice. But they enjoy having that most of the time. And also having fruit smoothies instead of sugary drinks. So, yes, it becomes the new normal and it should be that way," David Byrnes says.

TRIBBLE: Now, one fine note here: As the dad talks about the celery juice, 13-year-old Laura is sitting on the couch next to him and shaking her head in a "no."

She is a teen after all. But, this summer, Laura has lost 12 pounds this summer and D.J. has lost 5. The whole family says they are sticking to their new ways.

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