Obesity Reaches Preschool

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.

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"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.

Lifestyle and Parents Habits Key

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.

According to Kayla's social worker, Sandra Vieyra, tantrums are common for overweight toddlers. "I believe that Kayla has been rewarded with food, and I believe that therefore, emotionally, she likes her food and she wants more of it."

During dinner, Kayla's mother hides the remaining soup, but when Kayla screams for more, Matos relents. "I think it's a natural instinct for parents to react to a child's tantrum. It's easier to give in to a tantrum than it is to really stay firm. It's very challenging as a parent, the natural instinct is to go and fix it, save her."

But even after Kayla eats more soup, her tantrum continues for another 10 minutes. "She wants me to give in," Matos explains. Eventually, Kayla is sent to the downstairs neighbors.

'I Don't Want to Die Mommy'

Kayla's eating habits are taking a toll on the family. Her mom is frustrated because some of Kayla's other caregivers do not follow the diet laid out for her by her nutritionist.

Matos must leave for work at 2:30 every morning to earn overtime to pay Kayla's medical bills, leaving Grandma and Dad in charge. "My husband, my mother," Matos said, "They just wanted to give, give, give. And I finally put my foot down. I said we want to see her live. You've got to help me."

Two years after starting the hospital nutrition program, Kayla is still gaining weight.

"We're not sure if her parents might not be aware of everything she's eating, or they may feel as though she is more active … than she actually needs to be. We're a little baffled by it ourselves."

Kayla is still gaining weight, but her doctors are encouraged that the weight gain has slowed

Even though Kayla struggles to lose weight, her mother is not sure how much of the ordeal she understands. She is, after all, only 4 years old. One thing, however, is clear to Kayla: how big a problem being overweight can be.

When Matos tells Kayla to diet, Kayla responds, "I don't want to die Mommy, I don't want to die."

The Children's Memorial Hospital

Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children