November 24, 2014 1:35 pm

How this Danish doctor is battling childhood obesity around the world

Holm is certain that his program would translate well in Canada.

(Photo credit should read LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
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PARIS – Dr. Jens Christian Holm says parents, doctors and health officials need to think of obesity as more than a physical ailment.

The Danish pediatrician has seen it all in his clinic: childhood obesity with kids as young as 11 years old already dealing with cardiovascular problems, early signs of diabetes, high blood pressure and neurological complications.

They’re overweight, but that’s only part of the problem. Their quality of life is suffering, they’re have issues with self-confidence, they’re isolated.

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“We’re really trying to understand and treat obesity like a chronic disease – kids maintain obesity despite the fact that they’re trying to achieve weight loss. We’re trying to communicate in a compassionate, direct and realistic way so they can recognize what we’re saying to them,” Holm told Global News from Denmark.

READ MORE: This anti-obesity ad may scare parents into stashing the junk food away

“I have been in research for more than 20 years amazed at how people can focus on nutrition, others focus just on physical activity, others focus on genes. Whenever you target one of these items, it’ll never be effective because it’s an integration of them all that matters,” he explained.

Holm began his obesity clinic seven years ago. Immediately, it garnered national attention in Denmark as he took on young patients in several regions. Now, with his successful results in tow, he’s grabbing international headlines.

His approach is based on tailor-made programs for kids and their families. There are hundreds of changes a patient can make, but based on how he or she responds to a questionnaire, about 15 to 22 lifestyle changes are handpicked.

The lifestyle changes the kids must adopt are wide and varied: swap sugary cereal for oatmeal and rye bread for breakfast, portion out your dinner plate in the kitchen and don’t bring the full meal to the dining room table, or wait at least 20 minutes before asking for a second serving. (More tips are below.)

READ MORE: Your child’s weight in kindergarten could predict obesity later on

So far, it’s working. Of the 1,900 patients Holm has in his database, more than 70 per cent have lost significant weight and they’ve kept it off for years. More than a quarter (28 per cent) had elevated cholesterol, 50 per cent had borderline hypertension and 18 per cent were pre-diabetic.

Six years later, and with just 5.4 hours of professional treatment annually, they’ve reduced their levels of obesity and improved on their body composition. Even the patients’ parents and family bettered their health in the process.

There are eight clinics in Denmark, where some 50 to 60 nurses work with more than 800 kids.

Qatar, Colombia, Ireland, England, Sweden and Norway have all expressed interest in bringing Holm’s program into their borders.

Holm is certain that the program would translate well in Canada. Although he concedes, North America has an uphill climb in the battle against childhood obesity.

READ MORE: Parents’ feeding habits may be increasing childhood obesity

The World Health Organization calls childhood obesity “one of the most serious public health challenges” of the 21st century.

By 2013, the number of overweight children under the age of five was estimated to be more than 42 million. As Holm documented, these overweight and obese kids are likely to stay obese into adulthood and develop chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, at an early age.

In Scandinavia, about 18 to 20 per cent of kids are overweight and five per cent are obese. In 2007, Statistics Canada said 29 per cent of adolescents had unhealthy weights and if the trend continued, by 2040, up to 70 per cent of adults would be overweight or obese.

In the U.S. the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pegs one in three kids as overweight.

READ MORE: Is obesity an illness? U.S. medical association recognizes condition as official disease

In the meantime, Holm is whittling away at the issue in hopes that his results will turn the tide.

“We have shown it’s possible, independent of social cast, degree of obesity and independent of sex and age,” he told Global News.

“What we’re doing is working.”

Some of the lifestyle changes Dr. Holm prescribes to his patients:

  • Skip sugary cereal and fruit yogurt at breakfast. Instead, fill up on oatmeal and rye bread with “low-fat” toppings with less than six per cent sugar.
  • At lunch, fast food and white bread aren’t allowed. Instead, create meals based on brown bread, lean meats, fish and vegetables.
  • Don’t skip meals as this will lead to overeating later on.
  • Portion out your plate in the kitchen so that half is filled with vegetables, a quarter with protein and a quarter with starches, such as rice, potatoes or pasta.
  • Never bring pots and pans to the dinner table. Portions should be served up in the kitchen.
  • After your first serving, wait 20 minutes before asking for a second helping.
  • Fast food should be limited to only once a month. Treats should occur only once a week.
  • Pop, juice and sugary drinks should be consumed once weekly – and only half a litre at most.
  • Take on one organized sport and make sure it’s convenient to get to.
  • Aviod inactivity right after school, and limit computer and TV time to two hours a day.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

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