I understand childhood obesity more than most people. I lived it. And I became one of those statistics – you know the obese adult who began as an overweight kid? Yep, that’s me. I understand the judgments people make, having to prove my intelligence more because of the stereotype that fat people are lazy, dumb and dirty. I understand being a teenage girl with no boyfriend, no hope of attending the prom, and not being able to wear the current teenage fashion. I had friends. I had a fun childhood and fun teenage years. They were just different. Mine were overshadowed by diet plans, trying to find clothes that fit, and discussions with doctors and my parents about what to do with me.
When I was an obese teenager in the 1970’s the obesity rate was 5%. I was one of only three obese students in my large urban high school. Everything was about fitting in and being the same as everyone else. And I wasn’t.
Fast forward to an adult life of weight battles, over achievement, people pleasing and declining health. After 27 years of secret eating, bingeing and food addiction I began relearning life coping skills and slowly began my psychological and emotional rebuilding. Another seven years later I finally had all the components together to successfully lose 135 pounds. Relief! Accomplishment!
Completely changing my lifestyle, my eating habits, and giving up people pleasing and perfectionism I continued to grow into my healthy self, but I was 47 by this time. I began thinking about what would have helped me get to this place sooner, like when I was a kid. I found when facilitating weight loss support groups that the number one reason adults did not reach their goal weight was emotional or comfort eating. It seemed to me that instead of trying to correct years of dysfunctional food behavior in adults we should be teaching our children proper coping skills so they do not succumb to the same unhealthy behaviors.
Out of this COPE, which is an acronym for Childhood Obesity Prevention + Education, was born. With a childhood obesity rate now of more than 30% I knew I wanted to help others like I once was. COPE is a non-profit organization with 501c3 status with a mission to combat childhood obesity with a threefold approach – nutrition education, fitness and behavioral health. It is my opinion that the behavioral health component is the most important and the most overlooked.
As a child, teenager and adult I had the proper nutrition at home and understood which were healthy foods. I attended fitness centers and exercise classes with my mother and later by myself or with friends so why didn’t I lose weight? It’s because I developed unhealthy coping skills for life that revolved around food. Food for comfort, food for celebration, food to cheer me up, food to relieve stress, food for boredom; food became the answer for everything.
As we develop emotionally and psychologically we attach memories to the food and people around us. When we want the comfort of a particular memory or person our instinct is to do that with the food associated with the memory. That is an unhealthy food behavior. We need to understand food is primarily to fuel our body.
Occasional food treats are fine. But as a society we have taken this too far and we have no limits to our excess. And what about the consequences of our excess? We don’t talk to children about that until it’s too late and already a terrible habit. Then we expect them to run around the block, eat carrots and lose weight. By that time tastes have developed and indulgences have become the norm.
To help children learn these concepts early COPE has developed and implemented an after school program based on research and best practices. This 12 week program, named LEAN Kids COPE, involves daily fitness, nutrition and decision making cognitive life skills and includes a parent education component. We begin simply and advance to personal growth through identifying strengths and weaknesses and focusing on the healthy self we want to become. Healthier self-esteem, improved body image and personal nutrition and fitness goals are the end result.
LEAN Kids COPE is free to families and paid by sponsors and donations. Our only roadblock to helping more children and families is funding. We have a waiting list of schools and community organizations that want and need our program. In the meantime we offer free Kids Boot camp twice a week as well as a free family nutrition night monthly. COPE will continue in the fight to free children of obesity and ill health and help families understand that by making simple lifestyle changes we can live fun and productive lives together.
**Sandy Baker, founder and executive director of COPE Childhood Obesity Prevention + Education, is a certified L.E.A.N. Health Coach through Dr. Sears and is a certified Weight Loss Support Coach through BSCI. Sandy has a BA in Christian Psychology from Jacksonville Theological Seminary. Her twelve years of counseling experience under an ecclesiastical license helped her understand how a little bit of encouragement goes a long way in supporting positive change. Prior to ministry her studies and experiences were in business and finance. Her enthusiastic and positive approach to life brings hope to those desperate for change.