Childhood Obesity: The Heart of the Matter

"Your life shouldn't revolve around what you eat and how you exercise," Amy Barras, a Healthcorps coordinator at Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland, Ore., told me. "I eat healthy and I exercise, but that's the backbone of my life, and the rest of it just falls into place." That's the message she shares with her students at the school in an innovative program she helped create.

I had the honor of meeting Barras at the eighth Annual Gala for Healthcorps. Healthcorps is Dr. Oz's foundation that aims to counter childhood obesity through mentoring programs in schools. Barras' program, Fit to Live and Learn, was the subject of a documentary that was shown at the event. The film, The Heart of the Matter, follows students in the program and shows the positive impact it has had on their lives.

And, the heart of the matter is, that with one-third of children in the United States overweight or obese, we need more programs and engagement with children to help them make healthier choices for life.

I spoke with Barras about some of the highlights of her program, and what seemed to make the biggest difference. What I found is her philosophy mirrors my own: It's a combination of diet, exercise, and mental outlook that leads to childhood obesity; and that the same three-prong approach is what is needed to address the problem. Here, are a few simple ways to make a difference:

Teach them how to prevent bullying. Being a martial arts instructor for over 21 years, I've seen a lot of children come in that are overweight and have been bullied. When working with those kids who were bullied, the number one thing they shared was a lack of confidence. I found if I taught the children the tools needed to communicate, for example, how to stand, how to breathe, how to look someone in the eye and use their voice to project confidence, they would succeed at handling bullying situations.

Let them decide to change. No one else can make that decision. As a teen, Barras was 60 pounds overweight and one day, frustrated at her inability to control her eating, she made the decision to join Weight Watchers. Even if it's one change, like giving up soda, it will fuel future success. With each change (and every little success), self-confidence will grow and so will the possibilities of other change. Children will accomplish things they never thought possible.

Introduce healthier choices in creative ways
. Beyond health fairs and after-school programs such as cooking classes, yoga, Tai Chi, and Zumba, Barras hosts a "Café Oh-Yay" where students can sample healthy foods like kale that they may not be exposed to at home. By making the experience fun and social, they are able to really engage the kids and entice them to try new foods.

Work as a family. The whole family needs to change their habits -- and kids can help influence that change. After Barras joined Weight Watchers, she came home, opened the cupboards and tossed out all the junk food. "High school students have a voice, and the power to go home and do something," she told me. All families mean well, but in many families food equals love. This can be a contributing factor to childhood obesity. In today's crazy-busy world, which tends to foster a more sedentary lifestyle, busy families cook less, eat out more, and have easy access to high-fat foods in larger portions. It's challenging to sit down together, much less prepare proper meals, and families are doing the best they can. However, obesity is not an individual problem; it's a family issue. It requires the family to support the changes the child is making to live a healthier lifestyle.

That said, programs like the one in Benson Polytechnic will help children to initiate the changes needed to combat obesity.

What is one change that you will make yourself? How can you help a child to make an important change that will affect their health for life?