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Two Worlds, One Problem

Local Breakdown

After Devlin gained several pounds in three months, Jane McDonnell searched for weeks for a weight-loss program, but all were for adults. Finally, her pediatrician steered her to a class for children 7 to 11 at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital.

"I really wanted him to have a peer group. I didn't want him to feel it was him alone," McDonnell said.

The health officer for Prince George's County, Donald Shell, dreams of creating a weight-management center for children where the entire family can attend nutrition and exercise classes. But a room set aside in the county's Suitland Health and Wellness Center sits empty, its new aerobics floor and exercise equipment unused for more than a year. He has searched in vain for $200,000 to pay for a mental health counselor and an exercise physiologist to run it.

Thirty-seven percent of children in Prince George's are overweight or obese, but like other suburban jurisdictions, the county has allocated scant resources to prevention or weight-loss programs.

"When you go beyond the theoretical discussion," finding funds is tough, Shell said.

Experts say such centers should serve children and their parents because the adults are often just as clueless about nutrition as their kids.

"Parents think they can bring their children in and just by dropping them off at the door will solve the problem," said Andy Pfefferkorn, who runs the three-year-old Just Fitness for Kids gym in Manassas. "Now they're getting 60 to 90 minutes of activity but . . . nothing's going to change in the refrigerator."

At Pfefferkorn's gym, the kids keep food diaries, snapshots of their hectic family lives. One wrote of eating baked chicken with vegetables at his mother's, then fried catfish on the weekend at his father's.

Like smaller versions of their parents, the children multitask while riding the treadmill or recumbent bike -- thumbing hand-held video games, listening to music. At the front desk, a display holds vials of icky goo to show fat content in foods such as double cheeseburgers. One mother of an overweight 6-year-old says she cried when she first brought her child to the gym, worrying that she had failed as a parent. Then she confesses that she had made beans with bacon fat the night before.

Nearby, Manassas Park resident Andrew Baynard, 13, shows off the belt holding up his jeans. He has lost the 10 pounds he put on while his parents were renovating their home. During the renovations, he ate fast food at almost every meal, including three McDonald's McChicken sandwiches for lunch -- at 360 calories and 16 grams of fat apiece.

"A lot of kids' schedules are crazy because their family schedules are crazy. They eat on the way here and there and eat at all different times, so they don't have that old-fashioned hunger cue to when they should eat and they shouldn't," said Debbie Berg, a dietician with Prince William Health System's wellness center. It's about "busy schedules and too much chaos and not enough routine."

Two years ago, Burke resident Alicia Suchicital, 12, would get winded trying to run a few yards. Dinner was often whatever her father, Guillermo, could grab on the run. She regularly indulged in tall Strawberries & Cr¿me or Double Chocolaty Chip blended-cream frappuccinos from Starbucks, either 410 or 380 calories, respectively.


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