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Tufts Medical Center, Wang YMCA offer program that helps teens lose weight, build healthier habits

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  November 1, 2012 03:41 PM

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Malik Ferguson and Emily Biever.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for

Malik Ferguson listened as Emily Biever discussed healthier eating habits in a class at the Wang YMCA of Chinatown.

Malik Ferguson has always been bigger than most boys his age. Taller, more broad-shouldered, and yes, a bit rounder.

But he’s determined not to be the big guy in the room forever.

“It’s my number one priority in my life at the moment,” Ferguson, 16, said of losing weight.

He quickly added that good grades were very important, but “I need to be healthy in order to get good grades.”

To help reach his goal, Ferguson enrolled in a 10-week program for obese and significantly overweight young people ages 11 – 18 that Tufts Medical Center’s Floating Hospital for Children conducts in partnership with the Wang YMCA of Chinatown.

The program teaches teens and pre-teens healthier, more balanced eating habits that emphasize a proper mix of nutrients and the reduction of junk food — though not the total elimination of sugary and salty treats from their diets.

These are kids, after all.

The program also emphasizes that young people need to get up and move, that dropping their smartphones and video-game controllers is as important as dropping candy bars and giant sodas.

Emily Biever, a dietician at the Floating Hospital’s Center for Youth Wellness, said many adolescents have sedentary lifestyles.

“A lot of times [when] I try to encourage them to imagine, explore what kind of movement they can do, they have no idea,” Biever said. “A lot of kids were sitting all day long, all summer long.”

Besides the lack of exercise, all that sitting can lead to eating out of boredom, loneliness, or anxiety, Biever said, other bad habits she tries to help them break.

American society is in the midst of a cultural shift, Biever said, in which technological toys; parents working longer hours; the need for quick, easy meals; and other factors have made children and adolescents far less likely to spend their days outside involved in physical play in the way Biever’s own generation was in the 1980s and 1990s.

“My main job is trying to figure out how to overcome that current,” she said.

To help combat the trend, she encourages families to sit down for meals together, even if those meals come from the microwave or a fast-food franchise. Each session of the 2-year-old program begins with a parenting workshop so that mothers and fathers commit to working toward healthier meals for their children.

Biever wants parents and children to give more thought to the food they put into their bodies and where it comes from, to be conscious of what they’re eating and grateful for their food. Using a house as a metaphor, she encourages her students to balance their meals and snacks.

On the left side of the house, one room holds starches and grains and another has fruits and vegetables. On the right side, one room holds fats and oils and another has proteins and dairy. In the basement are those candy bars, snack chips, and other junk foods people should mostly avoid.

Foods from the left side give us a burst of energy, she told the students, while those from the right side provide less concentrated but more sustained energy and help young bodies to grow. A meal that includes items from both sides will make a person feel full and satisfied, while a meal that only includes one side will leave them still hungry.

In the second hour of the class, the students participate in physical activities that reinforce the healthier habits they learn in the first hour.

On a recent Friday, the students worked in teams to sort food packages into the proper categories, with one box for the starches and grains room, another for the proteins and dairy, and so on.

Biever advises young people to make incremental and manageable changes to their diets and to enjoy foods they want in portions sizes that are right for their individual bodies. If they do choose fast food, she wants them to select the healthier options that all the major chains now offer — most of the time.

But if a student in the program really wants a burger, she says get a burger, but maybe skip the cheese, the bacon, the extra meat patty or four, and get the small French fries and a diet soda.

“Food should be nourishing; it should be pleasurable; it should be thoughtful and mindful; but it should taste good,” she said.

Ferguson, the 16-year-old student, is embracing the lessons Biever and the other instructors in the program have taught him. And it’s begun to pay off.

“So far it’s really helping a lot,” said Ferguson, a sophomore at Boston Preparatory Charter Public School in Hyde Park. “I’ve already lost five pounds.”

Ferguson wants to go to college and study mechanical engineering, and then to own an automobile repair shop. Someday, he’d even like to design a new kind of environmentally friendly car, he said.

But to be successful, he needs to be healthy. Ferguson said he enrolled in the weight-loss program so he wouldn’t have to worry about his health and can focus on his schoolwork and planning for his future.

“This opportunity is basically my life,” he said. “If I felt sick, I would still come. That’s how important it is for me.”

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Joey Leung.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for

Joey Leung, EBALANCE program coordinator at the Wang YMCA, led Malik Ferguson and other students in a physical activity during the second hour of the class.

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