Positivity key in fight against obesity in Allegheny County

Chris Togneri
| Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, 8:00 p.m.

Every time Kevin Maurer stepped on his scale, the number got bigger.

He would diet for a while, only to slip back into a routine of fast-food meals followed by a large bowl of ice cream on the couch. In time, his weight reached 337 pounds. He struggled to fit into his car. Walking stairs left him winded.

Then, in March 2011, Maurer was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I saw my life flash by,” said Maurer, 59, of Green Tree. “I said to myself, ‘Get it together.' I have children, and I want to be able to see their children. It was time for a change.”

After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Maurer took on his weight. He joined Weight Watchers, began exercising and eating smaller meals.

Success didn't come from just that. Support from his wife, Karen, and daughter, Katelyn, proved equally important.

“I don't know if I could do this by myself,” he said, gesturing to Karen, 59, and Katelyn, 19. At 260 pounds, Maurer is more than halfway to his goal of 199 pounds.

More than one in three Americans is obese, but not everyone has family members to support them through difficult weight loss regimens.

That's why health advocates emphasize positive wellness campaigns, even as many Americans fret about the rising costs of treating obesity-related health problems. The cost runs upward of $150 billion a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The educational campaigns are making a difference, officials said: Though the obesity rate nearly tripled from 13 percent in 1960 to 36 percent in 2010, numbers have leveled off and in some cases dropped, according to the CDC.

“What's happening with obesity awareness now is what happened when immunizations to prevent illnesses were being promoted,” said Dr. Joseph F. Sheridan, a pediatrician in Johnstown from 1971 to 1999 and now medical director for United Health Care Pennsylvania. “We have reached a tipping point.”

Keep it simple, upbeat

Allegheny County officials last month began a “Live Well Allegheny” campaign, aimed at providing encouragement and access to resources for people, officials said.

Cities such as New York have taken extreme measures of banning large sodas and trans-fats and heavily taxing cigarettes, but Live Well Allegheny aims to create the type of supportive atmosphere Maurer found, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

“We're not a nanny state. We're not going to force anyone to do anything,” Fitzgerald said. “But when you have support, it makes it easier.”

Fitzgerald dropped 30 pounds in recent months through improved diet, regular exercise and his wife's support. “I wish I'd done this earlier,” he said.

Studies show that positive reinforcement helps people lose weight.

One such study by Yale University examined participants' reactions to anti-obesity campaigns. Some were encouraging, but vague. Others were aggressive and blunt.

Participants responded most favorably to simple, supportive messages, such as “eat more vegetables,” researchers found. People viewed aggressive campaigns as stigmatizing.

An anti-obesity campaign in Georgia, for example, ran a controversial television ad in 2012 in which an obese woman sat facing an obese boy. The boy said, “Mom, why am I fat?” The mother sighed heavily but did not respond. The screen faded to black and these words appeared: “75% of Georgia parents with overweight kids don't recognize the problem. Stop sugarcoating it, Georgia.”

That type of approach is not embraced by Voices for Healthy Kids, an anti-obesity campaign organized by the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“We want people to come together and find solutions,” spokeswoman Suzette Harris said. “It may be best to leave (the aggressive approach) in the doctor's office.”

Making it work

Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Department of health, said Live Well Allegheny has a chance to work, because Western Pennsylvanians appear eager to embrace healthier lifestyles.

The campaign aims to organize walks in towns and provide health tips and resources through its website, www.livewellallegheny.com.

“One reason we chose the terminology ‘live well' is that we wanted to be more encompassing,” Hacker said. “A lot of things can fit under ‘living well.'”

Sheridan said health officials should advocate taking baby steps. Such was his approach when he encouraged new mothers to breastfeed, to lessen a baby's chance of becoming obese later in life.

Immediately after the birth, he would tell mothers: Breastfeed the first week; it will help the baby's health, he recalled.

At the one-week checkup, he'd say: Breastfeed until the two-month checkup; it will be great for your baby's immune system and health. He'd do the same during subsequent checkups.

“It's about small steps,” Sheridan said. “Set manageable goals, don't overwhelm people, and it will be effective.”

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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