It's all about health, not just weight

Chip 4 Teens program helps adolescents go from being 'chubby' to choosy


Published: Tuesday, August 01, 2006
For 15-year-old Katina Goulakos, the CHIP 4 Teens program is "not about dieting, but about learning how to eat properly and reading labels and knowing what true portion sizes should be."

She wants to be an actor. He has a knack for computers and wants to become a programmer.

Although their life goals are at opposite ends of the spectrum, Katina Goulakos, 15, and Adam Manning, also 15, do share one goal: Each would like to become more active and learn to live healthier lifestyles.

That's why they chose to spend their summer attending the CHIP 4 Teens program.

The program (Cardiovascular Health Improvement Program) is run by staff from the McGill University teaching hospitals. It's aimed at kids who, because of their excess weight, are at risk of developing conditions like cardiovascular disease or diabetes. A comparable program is offered to at-risk adults.

When I caught up with the teens last week at the Mansfield Club, they had just completed an hour-long spinning class and were both flushed and excited.

"It was an intense hour, but I'd do again for sure," Goulakos enthused.

Both teens, whose progress I will be following over the next month, were keen to attend this year's summer session, but have different reasons for doing so.

Goulakos, who says she has always been the "chubby kid," wants to get her eating and portion sizes under control now, while she's young. "For me it's not about dieting, but about learning how to eat properly and reading labels and knowing what true portion sizes should be," the outgoing Grade 10 student told me.

"I used to skip meals and basically starve myself some days," she said, "and then completely overeat the minute I got home because I was so hungry."

A figure skater when she was younger, Goulakos was reasonably active as a child, but as she got older, her activity decreased and her weight increased.

"Elementary school wasn't so great," she told me sadly. "Some kids called me names because I was taller and heavier than the other girls and that was hard."

That changed in high school, but Goulakos says she still feels like the odd one out. "My older sister is thin, and I always feel like people compare us when they meet us," she said. "Even though it may not be true, I often feel like they're thinking I'm the fat one and she's the thin one."

Even though the emphasis is on lifestyle, not weight, Goulakos hopes to lose 20 pounds - and she's smart enough to know it probably won't happen by the end of the summer.

Since the program began in June, Goulakos has noticed subtle differences. "My clothes feel a bit looser and I have more energy," she said. "And my sister says my legs look skinnier - and she doesn't lie to me!"

Manning has his own reasons for being at the camp.

He attended last summer's session and wanted to come back this year to regain confidence in his abilities to make better choices. "You know what you should do, but you don't always do it," the Grade 11 student told me.

And he's worried that, left to his own devices, he might slide back into the bad habits that got him to the camp in the first place.

"I'm sure if I wasn't at this camp, I'd be playing video games in my basement all day," Manning told me. "I'd rather not do that."

Both kids like the security of the group atmosphere, where all the participants share a common bond. Here among their peers, they're not so worried about donning a swimsuit or being the last one picked for a team sport.

"We even laugh at each other when we try something for the first time and don't quite get it right," Goulakos said. "And it's okay to laugh at ourselves."

Other than the scheduled activities, the kids get to meet with a nutritionist who teaches them about reading labels, food choices and portion control.

Janna Pinchuk, one of the two nutritionists working with CHIP this summer, has just one concern: that the kids really will try to keep up what they've learned once they leave the supportive environment of the camp behind.

"Typical teen thinking is usually that chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease happen to their parents' generation and not to them," Pinchuk said.
"But more and more children are being diagnosed with things like high cholesterol, and that's scary. "

The other nutritionist working with the kids, Jasmine Ghoddoussi, who was responsible for creating the nutritional aspect of the program when it began last year, shares that concern.
"It's very easy for the teens when they're at camp and in that environment, but it's completely different when they're back at school," she said.

"We give them the tools and can only hope they'll apply them in their daily lives."

One outing will be to a food court where they'll be given free rein. "That should be interesting," Pinchuk said. "We'll be there to supervise and see if they're learning well."

Another component of the program is a weekly session with a psychologist to talk about things like body image, communication and self-esteem - all pertinent topics to a teenager.

Susan Freitag, the CHIP psychologist, says it's certainly not easy being a teenager today.

"Given the society we live in, there's a pressure to look a certain way," she said. "One of our goals is to try to help them focus on all of their positive qualities and to appreciate them and not to focus just on the physical side of things."

The CHIP 4 Teens program is funded by an annual spinathon held by CHIP at the Mansfield Club. That covers 80 per cent of a camper's cost.

"We feel it's important that they pay something, because there's more of a psychological commitment to something when you have to pay it," said Marla Gold, the program's director.
With the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, programs like this can only be seen as a positive thing.

"I'm encouraged when I see the kids who really get it," Gold said. "They can see how a healthy lifestyle can really impact their future."

And that goes for an actor - or a programmer!

Have you lost a lot of weight or even a little? Do you have questions or tips about fitness or diet?

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006