Childhood obesity has been identified as a national health issue, and our area of Brooklyn is also grappling with the problem.
Dr. Shashikala Pillai and her team at NYC Health + Hospitals/Coney Island work with young people – and their families – to identify the root causes of excess weight and obesity, and help patients to safely reduce their weight.
One-third of children (ages 2 to 19) in our area qualify as overweight and 17 percent are deemed obese, reported Dr. Pillai, whose specialty is pediatric endocrinology.
Excess weight in young people is a complex problem, Dr. Pillai said, and there are multiple factors to consider – genetics, underlying health problems, physical activity levels, nutritional intake, and even the child’s home environment.
But the most common reason for excess weight, Dr. Pillai stated, is excess caloric intake and insufficient physical exercise.
If excess weight is not addressed, it can lead to a host of health problems, including diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, fatty liver, menstrual irregularities, orthopedic problems, sleep apnea and depression.
All children, Dr. Pillai explained, have their body mass index (BMI) analyzed as part of their regular check-up. The BMI takes weight, height, gender and age into account.
Any child who is identified as overweight (a BMI in the 85th percentile or higher), or obese (BMI in the 95th percentile or higher), can be seen by Coney Island Hospital’s Weight Management Clinic.
First, Dr. Pillai and her colleagues work to understand each child’s particular situation, and determine if there are additional factors at play, such as side effects of chronic medications, hormonal or congenital issues, or developmental delays, that may be contributing to weight gain.
Once any underlying issues have been addressed, the Clinic’s team works with the child – and their family – primarily on four key areas: nutritional intake, daily physical activity, sleep quality, and other lifestyle habits, such as the amount of time spent looking at and playing with electronic devices.
Coney Island Hospital works with each family to review their eating habits — both what they eat and when — and adjust these habits as needed. The focus is not placed solely on the child.
“The entire family has to be involved,” said Dr. Pillai. “This includes grandparents and aunts and uncles.” The goal, she said, is to supply tools for the entire family so that everyone can maintain a healthy weight.
In order to increase our community’s access to fresh fruits and vegetables, Coney Island Hospital hosts a Farmers Market every Wednesday and Friday, from 8am to 4pm. The Farmers Market will close for the season around Thanksgiving.
Another goal is to get children moving. “We want them to be physically active every day,” Dr. Pillai said. Physical activity which changes the heart/pulse rate qualifies as exercise as long as there are no contraindications.
Proper sleep is critical for young people as well. Inadequate sleep compounds obesity, Dr. Pillai stressed.
Finally, the Clinic works with families on reducing the amount of time children spend looking at TVs, phones, computers and tablets. Children are more likely to snack without thinking when they are staring at a screen. Viewing time should be limited to zero to two hours per day depending on the age, Dr. Pillai said.
A child’s BMI will improve while they are still growing taller as long as the weight gain is slowed down. Weight loss in teenagers who have completed puberty, stressed Dr. Pillai, needs to happen gradually.
“It takes a lot of effort – a lot of patience and encouragement from the whole team treating them,” she said. Coney Island Hospital’s Weight Management Clinic also includes a dietician, social worker and psychologist.
The long-term goal, Dr. Pillai said, is for every child treated by the clinic to become a “productive, healthy member of society.”
To make an appointment with NYC Health + Hospitals/Coney Island, call 1-844-UR-CONEY.
This article is part of a series about resources available to residents at NYC Health + Hospitals/Coney Island.