DENVER (Reuters Life!) - Zachary had always been a big child but when he turned 10, his weight started to rise rapidly and he stopped going outside to play.
His parents, who had thought Zachary would "grow into his weight," become concerned as their son seemed to lose his zest for life and any interest in taking part in anything active.
This led his mother, Leslie Frantzen, to sign Zachary up to a 10-week weight program at The Children's Hospital in Denver called the Shapedown Program which teaches not just the child but also the parents about nutrition, the emotional side of eating -- and that exercise can be fun.
"Like many families, we have had our share of struggles and trials in life. Zachary has always been our "sensitive" child. He internalized these life challenges more than we realized," Leslie Frantzen told Reuters.
"I always knew that I turned to food to "self-medicate" but I had no idea that children do that, too ... Shapedown has helped us, as parents, know how to validate Zach's feelings and how to help him understand them and work through them."
Since signing onto the program in March, Zachary has lost about six pounds, trimming down from 134 pounds, and seen a 6.4 percent decrease in his body mass index (BMI) which measures body fatness based on a person's weight and height.
"More importantly, Zach's moods have improved dramatically. He smiles more! He is motivated and excited about life again. He helps our family remember what is healthy," said Frantzen.
Zachary is one of about 200 children referred by their pediatrician every year to attend the Shapedown Program which has a non-diet approach to weight management.
The program aims to teach families how to make healthier food choices as part of a drive against rising obesity rates in the United States, a cause taken up by First Lady Michelle Obama.
The program also includes two years of individual follow-up after the course to reinforce the changes a family makes to its lifestyle.
FAT CHILDREN MORE LIKELY TO BE OBESE ADULTS
Marilyn Day, who runs the Shapedown Program at the hospital, said this program was different because it involved the whole family and addressed issues like self-esteem.
"The concerns are for a child's emotional health, such as weight-teasing and discrimination, and for physical health, including high blood pressure, high blood fats, pre-diabetes, difficulty breathing during sleep, orthopedic problems, and many other medical issues," Day told Reuters.
Obesity is one of the biggest health challenges facing the United States with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating 15 percent of American children are obese or overweight. In some states this figure is above 30 percent.
Obese children are more likely to be saddled with risk factors associated with heart disease and type 2 diabetes and they are much more likely to be obese as adults.
The Garcia-Villanueva family were referred to Shapedown when their six-year-old daughter Fernanda developed a snoring problem that the doctor believed was due to being overweight.
Fernanda has since lost weight and it has changed her attitude and that of her family who has given up Internet access as a way to cut back on screen time.
"Fernanda is more confident and now takes more pride in her appearance. She wants to be active and go outside to play and exercise," said her mother Areli Villanueva.
"She loves swimming and dancing. Before ... she was content to sit and watch movies all day."
Fernanda's mother said it was key that the whole family was involved to help her daughter get her weight under control.
"Working together as a family makes a big difference," she told Reuters.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)