Reality show helps lift weight from a family’s burdens

Computer simulation got this mother’s attention and decision to change lifestyle.

By Erika Engelhaupt

The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA – Gloria Britten used to be the frying queen. Six months ago, her dinners were laced with oil and sugar. Her four children were growing outward as well as upward.

Then the Norristown, Pa., family appeared on TLC’s family weight-loss makeover show, “Honey, We’re Killing the Kids.” On a giant screen, a computer fast-forwarded photos to simulate how the children might look at age 40 if they stayed on this path.

The adults on the screen were gargantuan, with multiple chins and sugar-fueled dental decay. “I felt like I was killing my kids,” Britten said.

So the single mother began trying to shrink them. The show helped her find order in household chaos. The frying pan was planted with flowers, and exercise replaced some TV time.

She has since lost 18 pounds, and the children have slimmed down, too. A follow-up episode is scheduled for 9 p.m. Aug. 28 to see how well the Brittens and other families are following their new regimens.

Crash course

The challenge to trim down is as enormous as the American waistline. Most people who lose weight regain half of it over three years, according to a 2002 study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Children are growing fatter at even faster rates than adults. Television often is cited as part of the problem, even if a reality show gives families a crash course in losing weight.

“There’s reason for optimism,” said Myles Faith, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. Research, he said, shows that overweight children in intensive family-based programs tend to lose weight and keep more off than adults do.

“Honey, We’re Killing the Kids” tackles the problem of overweight children with a three-week course. The show’s straight-laced and photogenic host, Lisa Hark, directs the nutrition education program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

“It’s the environment that’s changed, not the gene pool,” Hark said. So, on the show, the home gets an overhaul. Out go chips and sodas. In come tofu and music lessons (they teach discipline, Hark said).

And then there are the computer simulations. The show has drawn fire from some critics and viewers for making a fat future look as vile as possible. New York Times critic Charles McGrath compared the show to a horror movie, writing: “Not only do the kids get fatter as the computer shows them aging, but they also frequently stop shaving and grow sallow and shifty-eyed, until they look like perverts and serial killers.”

Hark said she had received some messages from overweight people who say they want to be accepted as they are. “But my goal is to prevent medical problems in these kids when they get older,” she said.

TLC hasn’t decided if it will make changes to computer simulations, said Julie Rose McCully, the show’s executive producer.

Got Gloria’s attention

Gloria Britten said the scare tactics worked for her. Before the show, diet and exercise fell low among her daily priorities.

Staying home with her youngest child meant scraping by on child-support payments and some food stamps. She said she never took welfare payments, because she wanted to be independent.

Then her brother, Charles, was killed about a year before the show.

“Life was chaotic,” she said, braiding her daughter Aaliyah’s hair in front of her small rented townhouse. The power was out, and “Pop Goes the Weasel” played cheerfully behind her as an ice cream truck cruised the neighborhood.

“After my brother was murdered, we used food to medicate,” she said. “It was like, I’m down, let’s go eat.”‘

Now, she keeps the children active with trips to the park and the YMCA. She has not fried a thing since the show. In place of soda, a bottle of Deer Park water sits on the kitchen table. The oldest child, Alexis, 14, wrote her name on the bottle, surrounded by hearts.

Britten’s son Shakur, 9, lost 10 pounds; Aaliyah, 8, shed three; and Amira, 3, lost six. Even the slender Alexis dropped a few.

For more information

Psychologist Myles Faith’s “Garden Gang Program” is recruiting families with 4- to 8-year-olds who appear overweight for a family-based lifestyle intervention. Families will participate in a free six-month treatment program to help children lose weight and get on a healthy diet. Call (215) 573-7101.

Online extra

“We Can!” is a national program with tips and activities to help children 8 to 13 years old stay at a healthy weight.

See more at http://go.philly.com/wecan

Quiz

Take Lisa Hark’s quiz to see if your child is at risk of becoming overweight at http://go.philly.com/harkquiz