STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
With more American children becoming overweight, many parents are wondering how to talk to their children about weight. One program for families in Silicon Valley is both straightforward and successful. Here's Sarah Varney of member station KQED.
SARAH VARNEY, BYLINE: It's already been a long day at school, and a long day at work, for most of these families. Yet here they are, gathered in a Stanford Hospital classroom in Menlo Park at 5:30 in the evening, cheerfully sorting through pizza boxes and canned soup to learn about what's in their food.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, we'll take one more question then unfortunately, we have to end. Yes?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: What if you have a family member who's picky?
VARNEY: The children here are all in the highest percentile for body mass index, or BMI. And they've signed up, with their parents, for a six-month, healthy eating and exercise boot camp. After the class, I meet up with Gabriel Rodriguez, an 11-year-old, sparkly-eyed, self-confessed burrito lover, and his mom.
THEA RUNYAN: Hi.
GLORIA ARTEAGA: Hi.
RUNYAN: Good to see you.
VARNEY: Gabriel graduated from the program a few months ago, and he and his mom, Gloria Arteaga, are here tonight for their monthly check-in with their health coach, Thea Runyan.
RUNYAN: All right, Gabriel, you know the drill. Take your shoes off.
VARNEY: Gabriel and his mom meet Thea every month to measure his weight and height, and talk about how well he's sticking to his exercise and healthy eating goals. The program is designed around a traffic light system. Soda and cookies are reds. Other foods are yellows or greens. Reds aren't banned, but kids do set goals for bringing down how many they eat each month. They keep track of what they eat in a journal - the snacks after soccer practice, the pizza at school.
RUNYAN: OK, so let's take a look at your charts. So when you started the program, you were eating 90 red lights.
GABRIEL RODRIGUEZ: Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
VARNEY: The chart shows Gabriel had reduced his red lights from 90 to 30 a month, and he's pretty much stuck with it.
Program director Cindy Zedeck says kids gradually cut back the amount of junk food they eat, so it doesn't feel like a big change. This isn't a diet, Zedeck makes clear – a word that they never use with kids or parents.
CINDY ZEDECK: You're really signing up for six months of learning how to improve your eating and exercise habits for your lifetime. It's not a diet that you're on and then you're off at the end of the six months. This will give you the tools to continue to make these changes for your lifetime.
VARNEY: Those changes also include exercise. Kids set goals around playing or doing sports for an hour each day. Often the hardest part for parents, Zedeck says, is figuring out how to talk to their kids about weight.
ZEDECK: A lot of parents call and say that their child has very high self-esteem, feels very confident, is very active but they're overweight. So they don't want to bring up their weight because they don't want to make them feel badly about it if it's not a current concern for them.
VARNEY: The last thing a parent wants is to saddle a child with a self-image problem or eating disorder. So instead, Zedeck encourages parents to tell their child that the whole family could stand to be healthier, and the program is something they can do together. Thea Runyan, the health coach, says often, though, there are plenty of clues that a child actually wants help. For example, Gabriel asked his mom if he was fat. Other kids complain they can't keep up during soccer or basketball. But Runyan says parents, out of embarrassment or nervousness or their own issues with weight or food, can dismiss the problem.
RUNYAN: I think what happens when this issue comes up at home is the parent is quick to say, oh no, nothing's wrong, everything's fine, you're wonderful, I love you; instead of listening and saying OK, they're actually asking for help.
VARNEY: The program here at Stanford has an enviable success rate. Since 1999, about 80 percent of the kids who've finished have achieved their body weight goals. Although most of the families here were referred by a pediatrician, health insurers won't pay for it. Instead, the costs are largely covered by grants for low-income families, while others pay out of pocket.
For Gabriel, he says being with other kids who are overweight and trying to get healthier has kept him going.
RODRIGUEZ: It's not like I'm the only person in the world. I know there are other people out there like me.
VARNEY: For tweens and teens who are still growing, the goal is not to shed pounds, but to maintain a healthy weight. Gabriel is closing in on his health goals. His weight is staying about the same, but he's growing taller - and clearly, growing into himself.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney.