CHICAGO (AP) - Paris Woods is hardly a poster child for the obesity epidemic. Lining up dripping wet with kids on her swim team, she's a blend of girlish chunkiness and womanly curves.
In street clothes - roomy pink sweats or skimpy tank tops
revealing broad, brown swimmers' shoulders - the teen blends in
with her friends, a fresh-faced, robust-looking All-American girl.
That's the problem.
Like nearly one-third of American teens, Paris Woods is
overweight. Her doctor worries her weight will creep up into the
obesity range. One out of four black girls her age is obese.
The more than 11 million U.S. teens who are overweight or obese
face an increased risk for diseases once confined to adults, like
diabetes, artery damage and liver trouble. Those problems along
with high blood pressure and high cholesterol are showing up
increasingly in kids.
Paris' pediatrician urged her to take part in an intensive
experiment. The goal? To see if a yearlong program of weekly
sessions with a nutritionist, exercise trainer and doctor, all
preaching major lifestyle changes, could keep the 14-year-old from
It's the kind of intensive help that the influential U.S.
Preventive Services Task Force said last month can work for teens.
Through successes, setbacks and even a bout with swine flu,
Paris tried sticking with it. Skipped sessions stretched the
program from 12 months into 20, but she didn't quit.
Did it work? Stay tuned - her experience is a reflection of many
families' struggles with obesity.
During Paris' endeavor:
-Burger King introduced a 1,360-calorie triple Whopper sandwich;
McDonald's profit climbed to $4.55 billion; and KFC introduced its
Kentucky Grilled Chicken "for health-conscious customers."
-Torrid, a nationwide chain of clothes for plus-size teen girls,
opened its 156th store, up from six in 2001.
-First lady Michelle Obama - who grew up a few miles from Paris
Woods' Chicago home - made fighting childhood obesity her pet
project. "We have a chance to change the fate of the next
generation if we get on it," she said recently.
The options in Paris' middle-class mostly black South Side
neighborhood are limited to a bounty of fast food. Paris has a
taste for fried chicken, bacon cheeseburgers and Snickers bars, and
sometimes little willpower. Swimming helps her fight that. The
sport has been a passion since she was a little girl.
Her parents, Dinah and Parris Woods, wanted their three
daughters to be active, to keep them busy and out of trouble. "You
can't just do nothing," says Dinah, 47, a former fitness
In Paris' tween years, her weight started to creep up. She
developed early and classmates made fun of her blossoming bust and
"They started calling me fat," Paris says softly. It made her
So she wears two suits to swim. They are a drag on her swimming
times, but help camouflage her curves.
Pulling on a blue swim cap and stretching goggles tight over her
dark eyes, Paris shallow-dives into the pool where her club team
With smooth, strong strokes, she glides effortlessly through the
water, where no one comments on her size or tells her to watch what
she eats. In the water, she says, "I stay calm. It takes all the
Paris' two college-age sisters ballooned into obesity in their
teens. The family's pediatrician, Dr. Cathy Joyce, says that often
happens - teens put on weight, go off to college, and come back
So she asked Paris to join an obesity prevention study at
Chicago's Rush University Medical Center. Because shedding weight
is tough if the people in charge of filling the fridge aren't on
board, parents must enroll, too. Paris' parents are also overweight
and with borderline high blood pressure. They readily signed up.
That's unusual. Joyce has had a hard time recruiting. Her goal
is 50 patients; she has only 31. Some parents aren't willing to
change the family's lifestyle, others don't think their overweight
kids are fat.
Joyce says parents often don't notice until teens are very obese
- weighing 50 pounds or so too much.
"Reality shows like 'The Biggest Loser' definitely have not
helped," she said. They've skewed the public's perception of what
overweight looks like, featuring people who are dangerously obese.
The show's 2010 cast - including a 526-pound Chicago-area DJ - is
its heaviest ever.
At 5 feet 4 inches and 158 pounds, Paris started the program
about 20 pounds overweight. That was April 2008, just before her
One of Paris' sisters had become a vegetarian, so the family
decided to do the same. The hospital program doesn't require a
specific diet, but recommends healthy grains, lots of fruits and
vegetables, and avoiding unhealthy fats. Patients also are taught
to read food labels and to eat three meals a day.
The idea is to choose a lifelong healthy way of eating.
It was all new to the Woodses, a tight-knit, busy family who
used to skip breakfast and snack on the run.
Paris' mom likes to cook and the new regime lets her experiment
with tofu, nuts and soy cheese. It also means shunning old family
favorites, including ham and macaroni and cheese.
Their diet sometimes requires a trip to Whole Foods eight miles
from home, and it's costlier, but Dinah Woods says she'd prefer
paying now, rather than later with her health.
The change was drastic, but also seemed exciting. Paris loved
the avocado sandwiches and veggie burgers her mom packed for lunch, even if some friends turned up their noses.
At their weekly group sessions at Dr. Joyce's office, the Woods
family weighs in and gets eating tips and encouragement from a
In the waiting room, there are half-hour workout sessions.
Trainer Scott Mathews leads kids and parents through lunges,
sit-ups, leg lifts and other exercises they're urged to do at home.
The Woodses usually come on Wednesday evenings. It's not a
perfect time - everyone's bushed after school and work. Dinah is a
sales counselor and Parris, 46, a technician for hospital TV
systems, attends night school. But they all gamely roll out
exercise mats and dive in.
A fall 2008 session has Paris on her back, pedaling her legs and
breathing hard. She rolls her eyes when Mathews asks if she's
"I know you're tired. You just have to push when you're
tired," he says.
Besides swimming most days, Paris likes to run with her two
dogs, and tries to walk, instead of ride, when she can. Her parents
walk a few miles several mornings before work. It's pretty easy to
stick to the regimen during that first summer and fall.
By October, Paris' weight is down 8 pounds, to 150 and she's
lost 3 inches from her waist. Her parents also have shed pounds,
and all three say they have more energy.
Paris has lost her taste for meat. "I'm just like, ew, it's so
nasty," she says
Thanksgiving is the first big test. No turkey, ham, biscuits,
cheesecake or chocolate cake like Dinah used to make. Instead,
Paris says, it's "tofu everything," plus lots of vegetables and
wheat rolls. Could Dinah's lemon cake made with egg substitute
possibly taste as good as her traditional desserts? "No, not
really," Paris says laughing, "but I had to eat something."
The Woodses are nervous before the next weigh-in, but the scale
shows good news: No one gained weight.
By mid-December, Paris felt really proud. She bought new pants
and belts. And looking in the mirror, she says, "I don't see a
face around fat. I just see, like, my bone structure ... my
features in my face" are more visible.
It's a face full of youthful softness and a grown-up beauty in
her sparkling eyes and arched eyebrows. Paris is starting to tell
herself she looks pretty.
Still hovering around 150 pounds, she hopes to weigh 140 by her
16th birthday, April 13. "If I reach that, I'll be pretty happy,"
she says. Her birthday would mark the end of the yearlong effort.
Chicago's 2008-09 winter is harsh, snowy and cold. Paris feels
little motivation to venture outside to exercise. It's dark when
she gets home from school and homework keeps her busy until
Her friends alternate between encouragement and saying she's
wasting her time. Her dad says Paris "is fine as long as she's at
home. She pretty much sticks to the diet. When she's with friends,
they go out to burger places. She struggles with that a bit."
At school lunch, friends reach over and grab bites of her veggie
sandwiches, and Paris thinks it's unfair that their food is
off-limits. Sometimes she takes a few bites, anyway.
By April 2009, it's clear Paris will miss her birthday goal. In
fact, she's put on about 5 pounds. Wearing a tight magenta tank top
accentuating her tummy bulge, she says, "I just want my stomach a
But she acknowledges "getting a little tired" of the food.
Since they began a year ago, the family has missed several
sessions because of busy schedules, but they've vowed to complete
the program and are allowed to continue for several more months.
Then Paris is sidelined with swine flu. She skips a few more
program sessions, and then a few more because of training for a
lifeguard job, but also loses a few pounds.
During the summer, lifeguarding interferes. Instead of swimming,
it means long hours sitting in a perch, watching other children
swim. By the time she gets home, she's too pooped to work out.
The fast food at the pool proves tempting. She pushes the diet
out of her mind, and pigs out with her friends at the pool on
tacos, burgers and gyros.
There's no place to refrigerate the lunches her mom packs -
sometimes boring leftover tofu burgers from the previous night's
She skips several doctor sessions, because of schedule conflicts
and because she knows she's gaining weight. She's never been so
disappointed in herself, and considers quitting for good.
Looking back, she says, "It was horrible. I was like, I
couldn't go back because I gained so much weight."
But she returns to the medical center when the summer job is
Fall 2009 is stressful for everyone. Dinah has to work long
hours, arriving home too late to fix dinner. She and her husband
still eat vegetarian. Paris does too, at home, but continues to eat
fast-food away from home. Now a high school junior, she's stressing
out over college admissions exams and much of her free time is
spent studying for them.
When Thanksgiving arrives, it's another tofu turkey day. But
everyone falls off the wagon during a family vacation to Disney
World after Christmas. Along with fresh seafood, there were funnel
cakes, ice cream bars and cookies.
Finally, the Woodses' last program session arrives - Jan. 19,
close to two years. Paris seems tense. You can almost hear a
drum-roll as she steps onto the scale - 170.6 pounds.
That's 12 pounds heavier than when she started. Her waist size
is the same, 33 inches.
There are no tears, but she looks dejected and is thinking
Dr. Joyce doesn't see it that way. Disappointing, yes. But she
has overweight patients who weren't in the study who gained at
least twice as much over the same time frame.
The success is that Paris didn't become obese - and she looks
far from it - even though she's a mere four pounds away from that.
Paris' dad ended up a few pounds heavier too, but his waist
shrank an inch. Her mom dropped 6 pounds and 5 waist inches.
Joyce says skipped sessions might have been a factor; continuous
professional feedback is motivating although too costly to last
indefinitely. A research grant paid for the Woodses to participate;
otherwise the counseling and checkup sessions likely would have
cost well over $4,000.
Paris Woods' results show what everyone knew at the start:
Losing weight and keeping it off is tough, and life sometimes gets
in the way.
Dr. Ned Calonge, chair of the preventive services task force,
which recently reported that comprehensive programs for kids can
work, said conquering the obesity epidemic also requires changing
cultural norms: making healthy food more available than fast food
and encouraging physical activity.
Joyce says it's too early to declare her program a failure or a
success; some teens haven't finished the program and she'd like to
track them afterward.
She says kids must realize it requires a lifestyle change, and
that "it's not the McDonald's, it's not the Burger King that's
pulling you in. You're choosing to go there."
Dinah Woods says her family learned that lesson, and more.
For her, it was the first time in a long time that she went an
entire year without gaining weight.
Raised to think meat was required at every meal, Dinah says she
learned "that it's OK to eat just vegetables for dinner," or even
a peanut butter sandwich.
"The beauty of it all, that all of us learned from it, is the
importance of our health, that we're in control," she said.
As for Paris? Despite her disappointment, she says the program
changed her for the better.
She knows she has to control her eating and keep active; she's
even thinking about training for a triathlon.
"I know what I'm supposed to do," she says. And she knows that
if she works hard at it, everyday, she can succeed.
"I believe I really can."
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