FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Mom and teacher Sarah Bitsinnie has a college degree in health promotion, so she was surprised last summer when the family physician referred her daughter to a fitness and nutrition program.
She learned that daughter Katelyn Kenneth, 13, was pre-diabetic, and her cholesterol levels were becoming high after a few months of quick weight gain.
"I thought that I knew what I was doing. I just didn't really feel like there was a problem," Bitsinnie said.
Katelyn was making some sugary drinks and eating late.
She was one of about 400 kids in or near Flagstaff referred last year to Fit Kids of Arizona, a weight-loss and nutrition program started by the parent organization of Flagstaff Medical Center.
"We're hearing the parents say, 'Our whole family has changed their eating habits,'" said Matt Leversee, program manager for Fit Kids of Arizona.
More than half of the kids arrive at Flagstaff Medical Center's weight loss and nutrition program for kids with blood tests showing serious warning signs, including the beginning of diabetes.
"64 percent, even before they step in the door here, have had elevated levels of glucose," Leversee said.
Half have lost weight in the program — or grown taller while not adding weight.
The youngest is age 2, while most are ages 8-13.
For Katelyn and Bitsinnie, this means grocery shopping together and cooking together, and smaller portion sizes.
They pack groceries for car trips and plan meals.
"I thought she would be kind of resistant, but she just dove in," Bitsinnie said.
Kenneth swims, hikes, and on one recent Saturday is re-starting martial arts.
"She's more aware of what she eats," Bitsinnie said.
Jeanette Ramirez and 13-year-old son Xavier Thompson say they're reading food ingredient labels more than ever, as a result of training, and doing more walking, playing more at the park and playing ball.
"I was not as educated on the nutrition value in different foods," she said, but that's old news now.
He's lost 40 pounds.
"There's a little more confidence in him," she said. "He was always outgoing and all."
They've stopped eating out almost altogether.
Instead they cook together, and try to add healthier ingredients than the ones Ramirez grew up eating.
And they've added trips to the YMCA.
Xavier does step aerobics, basketball, and later plans to do football.
Melissa Pye's daughter, Victoria, 5, was heavier than about 96 percent of the kids in her age and height range.
Vicky couldn't cross the monkey bars on the playground, and was hooked on candy, particularly chocolate.
A physician referred Victoria to Fit Kids, where a nurse explained last summer that the 5-year-old would be at higher risk for diabetes, thyroid problems, and high cholesterol as an adult if something didn't change.
The chocolate and sugary cereals went away.
Drinks are now more often water.
Frequent exercise has became a must, from sledding to hula-hooping, even amid the family's busy work schedule and Pye's full-time job as a waitress.
"I said, 'all right, Vicky, we can do this together,'" Pye said.
The girl's grandma and aunt changed their eating habits too.
"The biggest thing I've learned is that the family has to support her for her to learn," Pye said.
She thinks everyone should have a nutrition class.
"It's neat to see that just a little child can lose that much weight," Pye said.
Being slender isn't the goal, as a rail-thin body type is not the norm for Pye's family.
Rather, being healthy is the target.
But Vicky has lost more than 12 pounds.
Her advice to friends: "Stop trying so hard, and just break it down to the correct foods. Just do it."
Vicky's clothes are too big for her.
And she can now play on the monkey bars.
Information from: Arizona Daily Sun, http://www.azdailysun.com/