Families struggling with weight issues and obesity typically don't have the advanced degrees it takes to understand the chemical complexities of food and nutrition, but suburban hospitals might have a solution.
Programs that teach the principles of healthy eating to a combined audience of overweight kids and their parents are available through hospitals such as Alexian Brothers and Advocate Good Samaritan, and participants say they're taking the mystery out of developing a healthy lifestyle.
Health professionals say bringing children and parents together for lessons on weight loss and exercise helps families change in unison.
"If you isolate the kids, the family doesn't get the same kind of information and it's not reinforced," said Marcy Traxler, who has run the Fit Kids program at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates for the past five years.
But programs that tailor lessons to kids while still including parents tend to get the message through, she said.
They teach nutrition in simple ways, categorizing foods into categories such as "go, slow and whoa." "Go" is for nutrient-rich items like fruits and vegetables that should be eaten every day, "slow" for higher-calorie foods that still contain some nutritional value, and "whoa" for soda, sugary juice drinks and junk that should be avoided.
They give simple exercise advice, like dancing together to a child's favorite songs or playing Wii Fit on a family game night.
"It's a fun way to learn, but at the same time, it's not always talking about dieting or exercising," said Anu Madhu of Hoffman Estates, whose 11- and 7-year-old sons are enrolled in Fit Kids, partially as a precaution against family risk factors for hypertension, heart problems and diabetes.
Even with a focus on fun, these programs help families make positive changes in their weight, body mass index and likelihood of developing serious health conditions.
Change is important for overweight or obese children whose body mass index is in the 85th percentile or higher for their height because they could be at risk for Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease, according to Dr. Savitha Susarla, a family practice physician for Sherman Health in Elgin.
In Alexian's Fit Kids program, children and parents meet for six sessions to learn the importance of setting healthy goals, exercising and reading food labels critically, said Traxler, who directs the Alexian Brothers pediatric service line. Pediatricians recommend the free program to families of patients who are at risk for weight troubles or already experiencing issues.
"It's not a long-term solution, but it certainly does get people on the path to thinking about their health and the well-being of their entire family," Traxler said.
In one session, an experiment shows the amount of sugar in sodas, fruit drinks and sports drinks. In another, participants visit a Jewel Food Store and practice making nutritional choices.
Former participant Martha Rodriguez of Streamwood said she learned to watch out for sugary cereals, introduce salads into her family's diet and cut out her daily Coke.
"The class is really well laid-out. It's simple," Rodriguez said. "It makes you understand about sugar and fat and how to increase your nutrition with a lifestyle change."
Rodriguez, who now translates Fit Kids sessions for Spanish-speaking participants, joined a year and a half ago when her 12-year-old son, Hector, had a high BMI and a vitamin D deficiency. She said he wasn't on board at first with eating tacos made with a mix of ground turkey and ground beef or drinking water instead of soda, but he's come to understand there are some foods "we don't have all the time."
Wheaton-based ProActive Kids offers eight-week programs to help children improve their health through exercise, nutrition lessons and family support. The program is at five suburban locations including Advocate Good Samaritan's Health and Wellness Center in Downers Grove, and teaches kids alone two days a week and brings in their parents on the third.
The main thing the Maci family of Downers Grove has learned is everyone has to work together to build a healthier life.
The middle of three daughters, 8-year-old Maddie, has a BMI in the 85th percentile for her height and is enrolled in the program. But when her mother, Molly, cuts out dessert from her lunch most days in favor of a fresh fruit, she makes the same change in her other daughters' meals.
"Now we're eating fish twice a week, which is way more than we used to eat it, and it's really been a whole family lifestyle change," Maci said. "Everyone in the family is involved, which I think is a really good thing and the only way to get change."