From a young age Bobbie Hallows approached her summer vacations with a sigh of relief, not just for the break from school and homework but because she longed to escape her reality, if only for a brief moment. Hallows struggled with a condition that made her different than many of her peers and often made her the subject of relentless teasing: morbid obesity. Which is why she couldn't wait for school to get out. Her family's home on a farm in rural Yuma, Ariz., was a haven where she could relax, surrounded by those who loved her unconditionally.
Hallows is on her fourth round of addressing her obesity, a lifelong problem for her, and she has begun to write a book as a means of helping others find the same hope she has recently discovered. Rather than what may normally fall into the definition of addiction, Hallows has suffered from an ailment that is becoming a global problem. In fact, in 2000 the World Health Organization consulted a group of experts to recommend solutions in preventing what they called "a global epidemic."
"Morbid obesity has plagued my life, my health, my confidence as a human being," Hallows read from her book.
Hallow's story is representative of the high rate of childhood obesity and rising rate of adult obesity. Approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents between 2 and 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers studied 50 obese patients over a period of 10 weeks to monitor hormone levels before and after weight loss. They found that many hormones that inhibit appetite and regulate metabolism were lower after weight loss. The CDC reports that adult obesity levels top 30 percent in some states, further underscoring the importance of preventing obesity.
Hallows said after losing weight she often felt compelled to get back up to her old weight. To this day she has to be intentional in order to keep off the weight she gained in her youth and kept in the ensuing years. As a result of her obesity, she became hypoglycemic and has to follow a strict diet of no fruit, no juice, no bread, no starch and no sugar. For Hallows, freedom came when she realized she had some control over her weight, but it took her realizing the health costs she would face otherwise.
Hallows said she has one granddaughter who is overweight and whose mother works to help her control her weight by monitoring her food intake and exercise levels. Hallows hopes this will help prevent the weight gain and its inherent emotional and social repercussions. Intermountain Healthcare's Dr. Elizabeth Joy, a family medicine and sports medicine doctor who serves on several boards, said her company offers a program called Intermountain Live that provides materials for children and parents to help prevent and treat obesity.
"I really think that we need to have a really basic understanding of what the consequences of obesity are," Joy said.
In addition to the physical consequences of adolescent diabetes and high blood pressure, obesity can have repercussions socially and affect quality of life. Joy said the best key to prevention is to create an environment to nudge people toward better choices and make those better choices more appealing.
Hallows believes the biggest change a person can make is within themselves. After trying everything from the grapefruit diet in the 60s to weight watchers to laparoscopic gastric bypass, Hallows said she finally has discovered the secret to losing weight — exercise and faithfully following a diet that is easy to maintain long-term.
A recent CDC study showed a decrease in the obesity rate for children K-8 in New York City of 5.5 percent, 20.7 percent in 2010-11, down from 21.9 percent in 2006–07. This drop may be in part because of programs now in place in New York and other states, including Utah. The Utah Department of Health currently has a program in place where schools that meet certain criteria can earn the designation of Gold Medal School.
East Midvale Elementary School was the Gold Medal School of the month in December. Principal Sally Sansom has joined teachers and faculty in devising ways for students to have fun embracing healthy lifestyles. Students measure how far they run. They then track their progress on a bulletin board and gauge how many times they can walk to Disneyland and back. Also, twice a week the school provides a new fruit and vegetable for the kids to try. Some of the more exotic samplings have been star fruit, Asian pear, blood oranges, baby kiwis and pomegranates. These children are not only more confident and excited about these healthy options, they are learning skills Sansom hopes they can use throughout their lives.
"The need is there and being healthy and fit and learning these skills will hopefully transfer as they get older," she said.
The fight against childhood obesity — often linked to type II diabetes and heart disease — has become more visible in recent years thanks to programs like Michelle Obama's Let's Move! program, and similar efforts made by school districts, state health departments, legislators and concerned parents.
Leon Hammond, executive director for the Utah Partnership for Healthy Weight, said his organization works closely with the Utah Department of Health to promote healthy lifestyles in Utah. One program offered by the Department of Health is centered on physical activity, nutrition and obesity. Its focus is on changes individuals can make in their the environments and lives to reduce obesity.
"We at Utah Partnership for Healthy Weight encourage people to do whatever they're comfortable doing along two lines — improving nutritional intake and becoming more physically active."
Utah State Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, has sponsored bills in the past to tackle childhood obesity, provide healthier options in vending machines and increase physical activity and is an advocate for combating obesity. She said while schools can help in making healthier alternatives more available and providing more opportunities for physical activity, families make the biggest difference in effecting cultural change. She has implemented this in her own family by challenging her grandchildren to not drink soda for a few months, the reward at the end of the month being a vacation.
"It really does have to start at home," Jones said. "There are things that everyone can do on a daily basis that can help and model for our children and grandchildren."
While Utah has a great track record for having low alcohol and tobacco consumption, Jones said Utahns do eat a lot of sweets. Parents can help their children by learning about the dangers of obesity and talking to their families about those dangers, then seek out alternative choices.
"It's not a judgment," Jones said. "It's something that we need to understand is a huge problem."