New program helps teen girls with weight issues
February 13th, 2012
12:01 AM ET

New program helps teen girls with weight issues

Being obese can be a very isolating experience, and losing weight can be difficult for anyone, particularly for a teenager. 

A new study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, finds that teenage girls gained less weight, ate less fast foods, improved their body images and had more family interaction over meals, after participating in a six-month program designed especially for teenage girls.

The program involved weekly peer meetings, consultations with primary care providers and separate meetings for their parents.

Conducted by Kaiser Permanente, the study is the first to report long-term results from a weight management program designed specifically for this age group.  In previous programs, younger children, teens and family members were included. This one was designed for teen girls only.

"Nearly one-third of teenage girls [between the ages of 12 and 17] are overweight or obese, and many of them are likely to become obese adults," said Dr. Lynn DeBar, lead author and senior investigator with the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research. "Our study shows that intervention programs can help these girls achieve long-term success managing their weight and also learning new habits that will hopefully carry over into their adult life."

The study focused on 208 girls, ages 12 to 17, who lived in the states of Oregon and Washington during 2005-2009.  All of the girls were classified as being obese. Half of the girls were assigned to the program and the other half got usual care.  Girls assigned to the usual-care group received information on changing their lifestyles along with a visit from a physician at the start of the study.

The girls in the program, however, met weekly with other teenage girls as well as with a behavioral counselor during the first three months, and then every other week after that for the remaining three months. The teens were asked to keep food and activity diaries, along with charting their weight. At each meeting, they discussed their journals and their progress.

The program was designed to focus on cutting down portion sizes, watching what types of foods they were eating including the reduction of fast food and sweetened beverages in their diets. Doctors in the program also suggested the girls have more meals with their families, instead of on the go or with friends. The girls were also encouraged to exercise at least 5 days a week for 30 to 60 minutes and were introduced to yoga classes. Their parents were asked to attend separate weekly meetings to learn how to support their daughters.

Although the program was intensive, researchers say they found it made all the difference.

"Many teenage girls are still growing taller, so for them, maintaining weight or slowing weight gain is an acceptable goal," said Dr. Phil Wu, a pediatrician who leads Kaiser Permanente's effort to prevent and treat childhood obesity and is also a co-author of the study. "Girls in the program gained less weight than those who weren't in the program, and they reduced their overall body mass index, improved their self-image and developed healthy lifestyle habits, so all of these are successes."

After the six months, both groups health and weight were assessed and then again at 12 months. The girls started out with an average weight in the 190 pound range, and an average body mass index in the 97th percentile, which by CDC standards is considered to be obese.

At the end of the study, girls who participated in the Kaiser program were in the 95th percentile, while girls in the usual-care group were in the 96th percentile.

Although the weight loss was not drastic, researchers noted the girls who participated in the program continued to lose modest amounts of weight as the months went on, helping them to better cope with their weight issues.

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