Tackling Childhood Obesity One Family at a Time

Dr. Victoria Saunders, pediatrician, shares information about healthy eating with an Arlington Pediatric Center patient and his mother.

Checking for high blood pressure and looking for risk factors associated with obesity are not steps most pediatricians take during every single visit, but for Dr. Tatiana Zenzano, Medical Director of Arlington Pediatric Center (APC), this is routine. And for good reason: fifty-four percent of APC patients are obese or overweight.

“Childhood obesity and overweight are bigger problems in lower-income communities, which is the clientele we serve. Not having the financial resources to purchase fresh produce means that families often buy unhealthy, inexpensive foods, which can lead to weight gain,” said Dr. Zenzano. “In addition, transportation difficulties make it harder to travel to grocery stores with good food options when they don’t have those nearby. And it’s harder to get to and from exercise opportunities like sports and other activities,” she added.

Being overweight or obese is also a serious matter because these conditions put children at risk for other problems, such as sleep apnea, asthma, anxiety, and bullying at school. And if you are obese or overweight as a child, you’re more likely to be obese or overweight as an adult.

In response to this problem, Dr. Zenzano and her staff decided to increase the frequency of screenings for risk factors like high blood pressure, even if the child is just in for a cold or headache. And in the last year, with support from NVHF, the Center started to design a more structured obesity prevention and management program that involves the family to promote healthier lifestyles.

Through the program, families will meet regularly with a nutritionist to learn healthier eating options, how to read nutrition labels, and appropriate portion sizes. They will also learn about ways to be more physically active and opportunities to take exercise classes in the community. A staff lactation consultant will meet with new mothers about the benefits of breast-feeding and its link to weight loss for moms and lower rates of obesity in their children.

“About 85 percent of our patients are Latino, and we’re seeing a lot of cultural norms about diet that we have to address. For example, there are certain foods that people think are healthy for the child, such as fruit juice. But too much fruit juice adds unnecessary calories to the child’s diet,” said Dr. Victoria Saunders, a pediatrician and the day-to-day manager of the Center’s obesity prevention and management program.

APC recently hired new staff for the program and conducted a survey of parents about the kinds of activities they would find helpful. Dr. Saunders said they will report on the program’s success after it’s been up and running for a year. “We’re just in the beginning stages, but we’re excited about the potential this program has to make a measurable impact in the community,” she said.