Reality TV Offers Nutrition Makeover

A new show gives families with overweight kids a chance to get a healthy new lease on life.

From the WebMD Archives

Honey, We're Killing the Kids is the latest in a long string of TV reality shows. This one, however, has a twist: Rather than bikinis and buff bodies on a tropical island in the middle of nowhere, it focuses on changing the lives of kids and their families who are on a path to being overweight, underexercised, and all-around unhealthy.

"It's a nutritionnutrition makeover series for families," says Lisa Hark, RD, PhD, host of the new show, which premiered in early April on The Learning Channel. "They came to us because they've lost control, they need help getting their children's diet on track, and they're not exercising. The parents told me they were stuck and needed help."

The format of Honey, We're Killing the Kids is simple: Take 13 families from across America who are in dire need of nutritional help and advice on physical activity, provide them with top-notch experts who can help rein their problems in, and over the course of three weeks get the kids and parents back on track by giving them the tools they need to sustain these healthy changes for the long term.

"These are mainstream families," says Hark, director of the Nutrition Education and Prevention Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. "They represent an estimated 16% of children and adolescents ages 6-19 years who are overweight. It's not just one thing: It's the sedentary behavior, it's the lack of exercise, drinking too much soda, eating too much sugar, not eating enough fruits and vegetables. They represent typical families, and the audience can relate to what they are going through."

High-Tech Wake-Up Call

Hark visited each family three times, and during her initial visit, she laid the ground rules, like no sugary snacks, limiting TV time, a regular exercise routine, a bedtime routine, and eating dinner together as a family.

While the rules were traumatizing enough to some of the families, perhaps most startling was the high-tech equipment Hark used to give the families a harsh wake-up call. Using technology to take photos of the kids and advance their ages to 40 years, Hark and her team could give the parents a glimpse of the future -- and it wasn't pretty.

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"We brought the families to New York and we showed the parents what their kids could look like at 40 if they continued with their current lifestyle," says Hark. "If the child is overweight, chances are they will be become an overweight adult. If they're eating pounds and pounds of sugar every day, their teeth will be rotted. There are serious medical complications -- like high blood pressurehigh blood pressure, diabetesdiabetes, and heart diseaseheart disease -- associated with poor diet and lack of exercise. And this is the first show to talk to parents and get them to think about what their kids could look like if they keep behaving this way. We don't do it to depress them -- we do it to motivate them. Then parents say they are ready to get started."

Over the course of three weeks, Hark saw each of the 13 families making dramatic, but difficult, changes to their lifestyle. During her final visit to each family, she discussed the modifications they made to their diet and way of life and gave each of them a new outlook on the future with a revised photo based on their new, healthier habits.

"The main thing is that I want parents to realize, 'I can do it,'" says Hark. "That they can offer their kids fruits and veggies and their kids will eat it. To get outside, to turn the TV off, to take the TVs out of the kids' bedrooms -- you're going to have a revolution, but kids adapt. In one or two weeks they'll be fine."

Creating a Buzz

The concept sounds interesting, and as TV should be, entertaining. But is a TV show really a sound platform for making changes to health and behavior across America? When a family is watching the show, they're doing everything they're not supposed to do: Sitting in front of the TV, not exercising, and not interacting with each other. Will it really work?

"The concept is great in that it will increase awareness even more in a visual way," says Sue Moores, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "I think anecdotally, people find reality shows about health and weight, like The Biggest Loser, inspiring. It's created a buzz, people are more aware and think to themselves, 'Maybe I can do that.'"

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With a registered dietitian on board, coupled with high-tech tools, the show brings a good amount of credibility to the table, according to Moores.

"The show has a lot going for it with a dietitian working with the families," Moores tells WebMD. "And the concept of showing parents photos of the kids at age 40, if they stay on their current path, is a very provocative way to go about it. There's not a parent on earth that wouldn't be moved by that. On a day-by-day basis, it may not seem like anything bad is happening, but when you can fast-forward and show them how it's all adding up -- it's going to be incredibly powerful."

Why Waistlines Are Growing

More than 16% of kids today are overweight -- a 45% increase from just over 10 years ago. So what happened to the youth of America to make them start tipping the scales? From computers to TV, the problem has only just begun.

"It's becoming normalized to put your kids in front of the TV," says Jenn Berman, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in family therapy in Beverly Hills, Calif. "It's easy, and once you start doing it, you do it more and more."

The online era hasn't helped matters either.

"Most kids are really interested in their computers," says Berman. "They text message, they email, they go online, and they have a little too much freedom when it comes to electronic mediums."

Sitting in front of a TV or a computer creates a vicious cycle, explains Berman, in which important athletic skills aren't developed, so the kids feel less and less inclined to get out and play.

Parenting Styles

Parents are also part of the problem, not using enough discipline when it comes to electronic toys, and because of today's busy lifestyles, not feeding kids the right kind of foods.

"In my experience, there are two kinds of parents who end up with overweight kids," says Berman. "One group who is just not educated about food and nutritionnutrition and what their kids' nutritional needs are."

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Instead of vegetables, fruits, and a well-rounded diet, the kids get sugary snacks, junk food, pizza, fast food, and anything and everything that is convenient and easy -- all a recipe for weight issues in kids, or any population for that matter.

"The other is one who is obsessive about food to the point that the kids are so deprived they go to their friend's house and binge on the junk food they're not supposed to be eating," says Berman.

With kids today facing lots of challenges when it comes to health, nutrition, and exercise, shows like Honey, We're Killing the Kids might be a step in the right direction.

The Long-Term Impact

"We have already returned to the families' homes four weeks after, and many have adopted the majority of the rules, such as increasing exercising, eating more fresh foods, fruits, and vegetables, cooking some of the healthy recipes, and limiting the amount of TV the children are watching," says Hark.

The trick is for the parents to remember that they are in charge -- not the kids. And they need to do what's best for their family's health.

"Most parents have said to the kids from the beginning that this is the plan for now and the future," Hark tells WebMD. "If the children believe that this is a long-term program and not just for three weeks, they will be more likely to adhere."

The show has already received a positive feedback from the American public, with visitors to the show's web site applying to become another success story for the reality show's next season.

Make Changes Slowly

For the rest of America, whose applications for the show aren't accepted or for those who would rather avoid the bright lights of Hollywood, you can still start making some changes -- but start slowly.

"Make your changes to diet and lifestyle gradually," says Berman. "You don't want to take your family from one extreme to another -- that's a setup for disaster."

If your family is used to fried chicken four nights a week, for example, don't go cold turkey. Start by working some vegetables into the meal, then move to healthier oil, like olive oil, and over time, slowly work your way toward grilled chicken. And when it comes to food and nutritionnutrition, don't be afraid to ask for help from the experts, either.

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"Every family would benefit from seeing a dietitian," says Moores. "Particularly those who are unsure about what to do for themselves or their families or they already are experiencing some concerns, such as weight -- too much or too little -- poor eating habits, poor food choices, or lack of interest or time in preparing food."

Nutrition is a crucial part of a healthy life. Sometimes having an expert on hand, whether it's on TV or not, can help guide you and your family in the right direction.

"Seeing a dietitian who knows about food and how to make it work best for the family is nothing but good -- a great investment for a great life," says Moores.

WebMD Feature

Sources

Published April 17, 2006.

SOURCES: Jenn Berman, PhD, psychologist, Beverly Hills, Calif. Lisa Hark, PhD, RD, host, Honey, We're Killing the Kids; director, Nutrition Education and Prevention Program, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia. Sue Moores, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, St. Paul, Minn. CDC web site: "Prevalence of Overweight Among Children and Adolescents: United States, 1999-2002." Discovery Channel web site: "Honey We're Killing the Kids."
© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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