In Central Florida, where one out of every three kids is overweight, obesity is a hot, and deadly, topic.
Today, Florida Hospital for Children will announce the opening of a one-of-a-kind initiative to treat obese children — and those in danger of becoming obese.
Healthy 100 Kids is a unique approach to fighting obesity and may be the first of its kind in the country, organizers said. The program, which began seeing patients two weeks ago, houses four specialists under one roof: a pediatrician who specializes in obesity, a child psychologist, a registered dietitian and an exercise physiologist.
"Childhood obesity is a very complex issue that requires many specialists and time and specialized resources to be able to really put a dent in it, to really make a difference for the families," said Dr. Angela Fals, a pediatrician specializing in obesity and the lead doctor in the program. "For them, this is one-stop shopping. They do not have to drive all over town."
Administrators at Florida Hospital began investigating the idea three years ago — and got approval for the concept 18 months ago, said Marla Silliman, administrator of Florida Hospital for Children.
With a $1 million grant from Florida Hospital's community involvement foundation — along with $500,000 from the Martin Andersen-Gracia Andersen Foundation and a "six-figure" commitment from professional golfer Annika Sorenstam — the center will not only provide one-stop shopping for obese children and their parents, it will also provide financial help to families whose insurance doesn't cover visits to exercise physiologists and dietitians.
Silliman said the health team hopes to see 5,000 children during a five-year period. And Florida Hospital hopes to inspire the rest of the community to get involved. Already, Sorenstam, who lives in Orlando, has volunteered to become the organization's spokeswoman.
"Obesity has been around for many years, but the trend is getting worse, so something is not being done," Sorenstam said. "The answer is not just telling kids to run around and kick the soccer ball. There's more to it, there are a lot of puzzle pieces to put together."
To participate, children must be referred by their pediatricians — and must be over the 85th percentile in body-mass-index, said Fals, who was recruited from Miami, where she was in private practice.
Children who are already obese — or who are overweight and have health issues such as diabetes — will be enrolled in a one-year program. During that year, they will visit the specialists five times, Fals said, but each child will also be assigned to one of four health coaches who will check in every week with the child either in person or by phone or e-mail.
Children who are overweight — but not yet obese — will be enrolled for six months and will get checked by their health coaches every two weeks.
What separates Healthy 100 Kids from other childhood obesity programs, Fals said, are the weekly checkups.
"There's somebody that they're responsible to, someone who will help get through their barriers on a weekly basis," she said. "It's not something that we recommend and then forget about for a few months. That's one of the strengths of this program."
In addition, families attend workshops on nutrition, exercise or other topics. But those group activities, say Fals, have been inspiring to the kids and parents who are already enrolled.
"We recently had a call from one mom who was concerned that her 10-year-old might be the only one in her age group. We told her that we already have four or five 10-year-olds in the program," Fals said. "Even just going to the group sessions, exercise sessions, that has made a big difference for the families, mental-healthwise."
Children enrolled in the program will be tracked and followed up for five years. Their data — such as their original weights and BMIs plus the kinds of exercise programs and nutrition programs they participate in — will be entered into a database that will be examined by Florida Hospital doctors and scientists at Sanford- Burnham Institute for Medical Research, who will help determine what types of therapies work best.
Already, Lessette Hubbard sees a difference in her 10-year-old daughter, Nicole. Diagnosed as pre-diabetic a few months ago, Nicole had been resisting her mom's efforts to get her to exercise and cut back on calories.
"When I would suggest that we go for a walk or not eat this or that, she just saw that as 'Mom nagging me again,' " said Hubbard, who lives in Apopka and called Florida Hospital after Nicole's pediatrician mentioned the Healthy 100 Kids program.
"For me, this is an answered prayer," Hubbard said. "She is getting the support that she needs in every aspect of this. The psychologist talks to her about behavior modification. There' a person who teaches her fun things to do for exercise. They're telling her, 'If you like to swim, let's do more swimming.' "
Already, Nicole's attitude has changed. She is filling out a food diary — writing down everything she eats — and keeping track of exercise.
"They gave her a pedometer to see how many steps a day she is taking," Hubbard said. "When I gave her mine, she didn't want to use it, but they made it fun for kids. They encourage her — and she is accountable to them. She has to report back every week."
Linda Shrieves can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5433.
Healthy 100 Kids
For more information on the program, go to healthy100kids.org or call 407-303-5437.