Kayla Matos-Galo is 4 years old, but anyone looking only at the scale might think she was 12, as Kayla weighs 95 pounds.
According to doctors, Kayla's weight does not stem from any medical problems. They say she is overweight because she eats too much, and for several years, she got no physical activity. The doctors warn that if Kayla doesn't get her eating under control, she could suffer serious health repercussions.
The number of overweight children has grown significantly in the last 16 years. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 7 percent of children were overweight in 1980. By 2006, that number had grown to 19 percent.
"I didn't want to see it, that she was obese," Kayla's mom, Luz Matos, explained. "I gave her chips. 'Mom, I want chips!' I gave her little baggies of chips, a lot of Popsicles, candy. I was neglecting."
And Luz Matos is worried. She is afraid Kayla will suffer. She has already noticed the health ramifications. "She has breathing problems. She has sleep apnea. She skips breathing while she's sleeping. I can't concentrate when she's sleeping. I sleep right next to her sometimes, and I lose sleep because I'm trying to hear her breathe and see if she's breathing at night."
According to Matos, Kayla was thin as an infant. Kayla's big brother does not have a weight problem, so Matos never thought to monitor Kayla's eating habits, even when Kayla began sneaking food out of the refrigerator when she was just 1½. She would sneak cheese, hot dogs, anything she could get her hands on. Eventually, Matos had to install a lock on the refrigerator door.
By the age of 2, Kayla, at 52 pounds, was twice her recommended weight. Her family was shocked when her pediatrician proclaimed Kayla severely overweight and sent her to a nutrition clinic at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital. Her doctors have imposed a strict diet and exercise regimen that her family has also been asked to follow.
According to Kayla's nutritionist, Linda Somers, "People come to us thinking that their kids have a gland problem. That is the common term that they use, and in the 15 years that I've been doing this, only one to two kids have actually had a medical reason for being overweight. … The rest is lifestyle. It's the parents' habits. It's the kids' habits from early on."
Weight is a now big issue for Kayla, both physically and socially. It is hard for her to keep up with the other kids. Her gym teacher has all the kids jumping, but Kayla can hardly make it past three jumps. Her feet hurt her when she plays because her extra weight puts a lot of pressure on her bones.
The experts who monitor Kayla's progress try to alter how the family interacts with her. "Instead of rewarding the child with food, reward them with a fun activity day, like a trip to the park, you know, instead of giving them a treat like ice cream or going to the candy store," said Katie Rule, Kayla's physical therapist.
Kayla is now expected to exercise an hour each day. Living in Chicago makes it difficult for her to play outside every day, so on the day we visited her, she rode her bike indoors.
Kayla is friendly and full of energy, but as soon as dinner is mentioned, her mood takes a turn. She is demanding. "I want soup! I want soup! I want soup!" Her mom has prepared a meal with vegetables and extra fiber, but Kayla acts up.