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Childhood obesity: 9-year-old boy's journey to health

Through a 9-year-old boy and his family, we hope to learn what it takes to turn the obesity problem around.
October 18, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Last week we told you about a Southern California study that had a shocking statistic: obese children, as young as 3 years old, were being diagnosed with high blood pressure.

In reporting this, we met a 9-year-old boy named Israel Pena, whose story made a big impact on all of us. Now, together with Israel and his family, we hope to learn what it takes to turn the obesity problem around one child at a time.

As the sun sets at an East Los Angeles schoolyard, Israel is running and playing at a time he would normally be sitting and watching TV. A night of exercise is the first step in Israel's journey to health.

The 4-foot-5 fifth grader weighs in at 124 pounds. His body mass index of 31 classifies him as obese.

We first met him and his mom at White Memorial Medical Center after he was hospitalized with an alarming condition for his age: high blood pressure.

His mother, Carolina, expressed shock, fear and, most of all, guilt. Listening to his mom made Israel realize how serious the situation is.

The day after his story aired, the East Los Angeles YMCA offered Israel and his family a one-year membership and enrolled him in a 10-week course called MEND for Mind, Exercise, Nutrition... Do it!

Program manager Lidia Estrada says Israel's story is all too common.

"Every day, we have kids coming through our doors that are overweight or obese," said Estrada.

In the Boyle Heights area of East Los Angeles, fast food restaurants vastly outnumber grocery stores. For many, apartment living offers limited places for kids to play in, and out on the streets, safety is a concern. People who battle the child obesity problem first-hand in the neighborhood say culture is also another obstacle.

"The culture here is Mexican, Mexican-American and we have a lot of traditions with foods that have a lot of high fat or a lot of sugar, so it's just hard to implement the changes that you learn at home," said Estrada.

But MEND educators have to try. Israel and his mom are committed to making some big changes. And this time, they have support.

"I know that it's going to be a lot of hard work, but were going to be here to help him," said Estrada.

We all know for Israel to be successful, his parents and his brothers and sisters all have to be on board. We'll check in with him several times throughout the year to see how he's doing and to cheer him on.


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