Curbing Childhood Obesity One Family Habit at a Time

“As a pediatrician, I don’t want kids focused on numbers (like those on a scale or calorie counting). That can be very detrimental in terms of their mental health and can put them at-risk for eating disorders. I focus on lifestyle habits because that will help to result in better health outcomes across the board.”

Qadira Ali Huff, MD, MPH, DipABLM

Sean Hashmi

For Qadira Ali Huff, MD, MPH, DipABLM, pediatrics is at the center of prevention, education, and advocacy.

She has mastered unique skills coupled with those she acquired as a board-certified lifestyle medicine clinician to better treat medically under-resourced children from East of the River communities in Washington, DC. Many of her patients’ families are experiencing housing, employment, and food insecurities — all drivers that increase obesity risk.

Family-centered approach

More than half of all adults living in the District of Columbia are overweight or have obesity, but rates are even higher in East of the River neighborhoods. These statistics remind Dr. Huff why her patients are experiencing obesity and even prediabetes at young ages. “Children live in the context of their family unit,” she said. “They inherit shared family habits, shared physical activity habits, shared meal preparation habits, and shared habits that dictate how we manage or don’t manage stress.” Dr. Huff believes that having a family approach is essential. “I’m treating the whole family, not just the little one.”

Small changes, huge gains

Since becoming board certified in lifestyle medicine in 2019 by the American Board of Lifestyle Medicine, Dr. Huff now has the knowledge, tools, and resources to be more effective when guiding her patients. “There needs to be a lot of support to manage chronic diseases such as obesity,” she said. “Most of the time, parents are struggling with their own relationship with food and are seeing it come full circle with their children. Parental guilt is a real thing.”

Follow @lmhealthequity, ACLM’s Health Equity Achieved through Lifestyle Medicine Instagram, and tune in for an Instagram Live featuring Dr. Huff at 7 p.m. EST Sept. 22.

Debunking myths

Dr. Huff educates her patients so that they have what they need to prioritize healthy habits. In some cases, that means debunking common myths that patients take at face value, such as fruits, vegetables, and healthy eating being more expensive than the standard American diet.

It takes a village

Fortunately, at Children’s National, where Dr. Huff practices, she is able to partner with social work colleagues who can help families navigate their social needs. In addition, she refers families experiencing food insecurity to resources like local food pantries or supplemental nutrition programs. Dr. Huff also guides families on how to take advantage of their health insurance benefits, some of which may offer nutrition workshops and low-to-no-cost gym memberships.

As he made changes to his own lifestyle habits, Dr. Turner started talking to a nutritionist colleague at the Mayo Clinic who mentioned ACLM, the nation’s medical professional society representing clinicians dedicated to a lifestyle medicine. ACLM defines lifestyle medicine as the evidence-based use of a predominantly whole food, plant-based diet, physical activity, restorative sleep, social connection, avoidance of risky substances and stress management. ACLM, which represents more than 7,000 physicians and other clinicians, is the only organization that educates, equips, and supports certification of physicians and other clinicians in lifestyle medicine.

Dr. Turner began talking to patients about their lifestyle habits and explaining the evidence that supported how changes could improve their whole health. During clinical rounds, he visited patients with lifestyle-health related books that could benefit their specific health ailment. Resident doctors accompanying him on rounds would say afterward “I’ve never seen anyone do that before. Can you show me the books you’re using?”

For patients who committed to lifestyle behavior changes, the results were at times astonishing. Patients suffering from severe hypertension enjoyed dramatic decreases in blood pressure and, subsequently significantly reduced the antihypertension medication they required. Patients with chronic kidney disease, diabetes or advanced atherosclerotic vascular disease stabilized their kidney function and did not progress to the point of needing dialysis. Patients with a history of kidney stones were able to prevent stone growth and new stone formation.

At times, Dr. Turner took good-natured ribbing from colleagues — “Here comes Turner with his veggies.” But as health care spending soared, the pandemic raised awareness of the risks of chronic lifestyle-related disease and the evidence grew proving the therapeutic power of lifestyle medicine, interest in the field exploded. ACLM, which had 500 members in 2014, has grown to more than 9,000 practicing in the field. Large health systems are increasingly integrating a therapeutic dose of lifestyle medicine into patient care, employee health and their broader communities.

“Interest in lifestyle medicine is growing not just among clinicians and health systems but among patients who are increasingly understanding that they can make a big difference in their health with small lifestyle changes,” said ACLM President Dr. Cate Collings, MD, MS, FACC, DipABLM. “Dr. Turner’s generous gift to ACLM will help more clinicians gain the knowledge and skills to practice lifestyle medicine and partner with their patients take control of their heath.”

The time is now for lifestyle medicine to become the foundation of health and health care, Dr. Turner said. He hopes his gift to ACLM can help build that foundation.

“ACLM has really become my intellectual home,” Dr. Turner said. “I truly believe lifestyle medicine is the most positive thing happening in the medical space. I am excited to do my part to keep that positive momentum going.”

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