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Today is October 4, 2022

Hey, kids! Let’s fix the fat

Cardiologist Gerald Berenson explains strong link between childhood obesity and adult heart disease in a new book for parents (and everyone else).

By Debbie Stringer

Hey, kids! Let’s fix the fat

    A toddler can’t see herself as a fat 50-year-old with heart disease.
    It’s up to her parents to consider this very real possibility and to prevent it by curing her growing addiction to salt, sugar and fat.
    So says Dr. Gerald S. Berenson, a renowned cardiologist and children’s health advocate who has taught at both Louisiana State University and Tulane University medical schools for more than 40 years.
    A member of Coast Electric Power Association, Berenson was the first to discover that the process of adult heart disease begins in childhood.
    Berenson created the Bogalusa Heart Study in 1972, a childhood health study that grew to span more than 30 years and involve 16,000 children and adults in Bogalusa, La.
    Berenson and his historic study were featured in the HBO documentary “The Weight of the Nation: Confronting America’s Obesity Epidemic.”
    The study was designed to look at all aspects of childhood health, including weight, as future predictors of adult heart disease. Within a few years the research had established that lifestyle choices and behaviors contributing to heart disease—such as poor diet and lack of exercise—start in early childhood.
    The major heart disease risk factors of obesity, high blood cholesterol and hypertension resulting from these behaviors cause changes to the body as early as age 5, the study revealed.
    The good news is that early detection of caridovascular risk factors enables parents to take preventive action that will dramatically influence their child’s risk later in life.
    The benefits of better lifestyle choices extend to all areas of health—mental, social and physical—as the child grows up, Berenson said.
   Berenson presents more findings from his study and the effects of obesity on the body in his new book, “You Can Fix the Fat From Childhood & Other Heart Disease Risks, Too,” co-authored with NancyKay Sullivan Wessman, M.P.H., of Jackson.
    The authors spent seven years distilling the information into a form everyone can understand, and enjoy reading. Readers will learn not only heart disease risk factors but get practical advice on how to change obesity-promoting behaviors leading children (and adults) toward heart disease and other chronic health problems.
    “It was originally written [to help parents] raise kids healthy and to teach them good decision making,” Berenson said. “You always hope they are going to make the right decision, whether it’s for drugs, food, alcohol or smoking.”
    Reflecting Berenson’s reputation as a caring doctor, the book does not scold parents. Instead, the cardiologist uses humor, empathy and authority to inform and motivate them in helping their children abandon (and avoid) bad habits that could follow them into adulthood.
    “We think it’s a clear, concise explanation of what contributes to heart disease and how you can identify those contributing factors in your own life, and change them,” Wessman said. “It has all the facts about all the major things people need to do to be healthy.”
    Wessman, a freelance writer with a background in public health, has been down that bumpy self-improvement road herself. “I am the poster child for ‘You Can Fix the Fat’ because I’ve been fighting the fat since I was a baby, sometimes successfully and sometimes not,” she said.
    After the sudden death of her husband two years ago, Wessman slipped into a destructive cycle of poor eating habits, too much drinking and too little exercise.
    “Finally I realized that I was fast on the road to diabetes. The thought of having diabetes scares me more than having a heart attack. I just don’t want to live with that disease, but I knew that I was well on the way to both that and liver disease.”
    Sensing herself at a life-altering crossroads, Wessman turned her life around by sticking to a plan based on healthier choices.
    She kickstarted her new eating program by eliminating sausage and bacon from her diet. Instead of pork at breakfast, she enjoys brown rice, two scrambled eggs and tomatoes. “It’s delicious! And it’s so healthy,” she said.
    Improving dietary habits is all about making a lot of little changes and sticking to them, Wessman said.
    “It’s about lifestyle. It’s about an adult deciding that they and their children will be healthy in spite of bad genes, an environment that’s not conducive to living a healthy lifestyle and a food industry that doesn’t encourage healthy eating.”
    Wessman hopes “Fix the Fat” opens parents’ eyes to the long-term health consequences of serving poor food choices every day.
    “As they continue to feed that child high sugar, high fat, refined foods with little nutritional value, with little fiber, they’re making the child sick. They’re preventing the child’s having good health, and no parent wants to do that,” she said.
    But how does a parent convince a child to choose fresh fruits and vegetables over fatty fast food and sugary cereals? To play outside instead of watching TV? And to say no to cigarettes?
    Berenson encourages parents to talk to their children about better choices in a positive, well-meaning conversation without argument. And to be tolerant of slip-ups and mistakes.
    “It’s tough for kids to choose a healthy lifestyle because they don’t always know what the choices are. They’re not doctors, they’re not psychiatrists, they’re not preachers. But it’s important,” Berenson said.
    Never underestimate the power of a role model, he cautions in the book: “A parent or other adult role model who avoids smoking, eats nutritious food, exercises regularly and possesses a healthy and positive self-image will be a more effective health educator than anyone who communicates information and skills without practicing those behaviors.”
    A life-long swimmer, Berenson may be his own best evidence of his healthy-choices advocacy.
    “Somehow or other, I got to be 90,” the doctor said before departing Tulane for a weekend at his Pearl River County farm, where he raises cattle.
    “You Can Fix the Fat From Childhood & Other Heart Disease Risks, Too” is available at and The softcover edition (signed and personalized upon request) may be ordered from the author. Price is $21, including postage. Send check to NKS Wessman, 3726 Crane Boulevard, Jackson, MS 39216. For more information email

Bogulasa Heart Study findings
As of 2010
• Cardiovascular risk factors can be identified early in life.
• Children on average are over 12 pounds heavier, though no taller, since 1973 and are continuing to gain weight, over expected gain, with growth.
• Over 40 percent of children are overweight or obese.
• Sixty percent exceed dietary cholesterol intake; 80 percent exceed recommended saturated fat intake.
• Risk factors lead to more diabetes in African Americans, and to coronary artery disease at an earlier age in white males.
• Average age of heart attacks is 51 years in the Bogalusa community.


Kickstart better health at any age
Start with these tips:
• Don’t smoke or use any tobacco products, or abuse drugs. Period.
• Cook at home instead of dining out. Avoid the fast-food drive-through. Replace high-sodium packaged meals with fresh foods.
• Avoid excess calories by enjoying calorie-dense foods in moderation. You can still enjoy an occasional sweet treat or small snack, but keep the portions small. Replace high-fat foods with tasty substitutions, like frozen yogurt for ice cream.
• Eat more vegetables, minimally cooked. Read labels on canned vegetables to avoid excess sodium and additives.
• Eat more fiber. Introduce more whole grains into the diet, such as quinoa and brown rice. Eat 100 percent whole wheat bread (read the label) instead of white bread. Beans are a good source of vitamins and fiber; rinse and drain canned beans to reduce sodium intake.
• Reduce consumption of refined sugar. Try fruit to satisfy a sweet tooth as you wean taste buds off pastries and candy.
• Don’t be misled by advertising claims on food labels. Some “cholesterol-free” foods actually contain more fat than a lean steak. “Low-fat” doesn’t necessarily mean low-calorie, and “multi-grain” bread does not mean the same as “100 percent whole wheat.”
• When buying ground beef, choose extra-lean. After browning the meat for use in chili, tacos and spaghetti sauce, drain it in a colander lined with a paper towel to absorb fat. Eliminate even more fat by rinsing the drained beef with hot water.
• Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
• Introduce a fun physical activity into everyday routines. People who do not engage in physical activity are twice as likely to suffer heart disease.

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