Shawn Ruiz used to start his day with a sausage, egg and cheese croissant sandwich plus fries at Burger King. Now he eats a bowl of Special K with a cup of milk and maybe a couple of eggs.
"That fills me up," said the Roseland Accelerated Middle School student, who doesn't consider himself on a diet or deprived. Nor does his family doctor, Cheryl Green at Santa Rosa Kaiser Permanente, whose goal for her 13-year-old patient is a life of healthy choices.
"It's not about setting a weight loss goal but a behavior change," said Green, who has made childhood obesity her passion.
Dr. Green didn't say I had to starve myself," said Ruiz. "She just said to watch what I eat, make better choices and get more exercise."
That's one message from health experts trying to reverse the national epidemic of childhood obesity. Show kids what they have to gain — healthy habits — rather than the number of pounds they need to lose.
"I feel very lucky that I'm doing this now because I know when you get older it's tougher," said Ruiz.
Doctors, of course, would prefer to start before 13 to recruit a child to healthy eating.
Ideally it starts before birth, said pediatrician Mark Sloan, also with Kaiser, who said the first thing a parent can do to prevent overweight children is to keep a healthy pre-pregnancy weight. Then comes breastfeeding, he said, "the second most important obesity prevention measure," because not only is it the "perfect food for infants, it also helps parents to not over-feed their infants."
Pediatricians, he said, are now starting to emphasize obesity prevention at the first well-baby visit and then keep the message going through high school graduation.
Sometimes a child's growing girth can go unnoticed, especially in our giant soda, fast-food, screen-obsessed culture. Parents don't see it on their kids because they don't look that different from other kids, said Green, noting that "43 percent of parents with overweight children think the child is about right. That's because the percent of overweight children has tripled in 30 years."
Virginia Mendez of Santa Rosa wasn't concerned about her son Martin, now 12, until his doctor urged both mother and son to enroll in Tomando Pasos (Taking Steps), a bilingual healthy-weight program at the Northern California Center for Well Being. That was last summer and since then the whole Mendez family of Santa Rosa is eating different. Martin's given up junk food. His mother has joined Weight Watchers and her husband's diabetes has improved.
In Sonoma County there is no lack of programs aimed at getting kids to eat better and move more. Kids at Salmon Creek School in Occidental grow their own salad bar ingredients in the school garden. Santa Rosa grade-school girls learn the fun of exercise through the popular Girls Can Run program.
A summary of programs is on the Healthy Students Initiative webpage for Sonoma County Health Action — www.sonomahealthaction.org/hsi
In Sonoma County, like the rest of the country, the highest obesity rates are in low-income groups. In Sonoma County, 38 percent of low-income children, ages 2 to 11, and 44 percent of teens are overweight or obese, according to Health Action figures. Those numbers have held fairly steady for the last few years and match overall state rates.