This week, NHPR looks at the challenge of trimming the waistlines of Granite Staters. Our collective habit of taking in more calories than we burn off has been called the country’s biggest self-inflicted wound to our health.
We begin the series with the story of a college student who, as a child, saw his weight growing and growing. Unlike the majority of young adults, he worked his way back to being more healthy and fit.
As NHPR’s Elaine Grant reports, what he went through – and what he learned – is useful for us all.
“They have everything here. It’s like make your own wraps; that’s dessert; Chinese is over there. If we walk back, you have Italian; you have American; and then you have specialty…”
That’s Tony Aboujaoude. He’s a new freshman at UNH, and he’s giving me a tour of the university dining hall, Holloway Commons. “This was one of my favorite things,” he says, pointing to an array of delectable-smelling pizza pies, arranged artfully in front of a brick oven. “So many different kinds of pizza, they make the pizza right in front of you…”
The UNH dining hall is a paradise for food lovers -- and an incredible temptation to anyone who walks through its doors.
That’s just exactly how UNH wants it. The university proudly markets the 30 awards it has won for its food service as yet one more reason to attend college here.
But Tony can’t afford to be too enticed. Less than two years ago, he tipped the scales at 256 pounds.
He began his climb toward that weight when he was just eight years old. Until then, he and his family lived in Lebanon. Tony and his older brother spent every spare moment outdoors.
“It was just these huge fields that we could play in whenever we felt bored. There was always something to do,” he says. “We’d always just go outside and explore and run around and so I was very fit for a kid.”
But life was very different in New Hampshire. They moved to an apartment complex on a busy street in Salem.
The playing stopped. And food became a substitute for the friends he didn’t have. “I would eat leftovers from parties all the time,” he says. “That was my snack food. And it was usually very unhealthy. My mom would keep a fruit bowl out on the dining table, but it was very rarely touched -- we would not go near it. It was always chips, candy; it was always bad food for us.”
Over time, he got heavier. As he moved into his teens, the pattern fed on itself. “I would lay on my bed and be on my computer for hours and hours and hours on end until the computer would shut down because it would heat up so much,” he says. “I could be in there for a good six hours and not come out for a meal.”
At a level he didn’t want to admit to himself, his growing weight had made him uncomfortable around other kids.
“I’d never say I don’t want to go out because I don’t want people to look at me and say look at him, he’s so fat,” Tony says, in a rush. “It was something that was just looming in my head. It was always there.”
By the time he was 16, he was about 75 pounds overweight.
At a regular checkup, his family doctor minced no words. If you want to be sick, he told Tony, keep it up. But if you want any chance of having a healthy adult life, you’d better do something now.
“That was definitely a slap in the face,” Tony says. “It woke me up cause it was like, Something needs to change.”
At just 16, he had very high LDL cholesterol – the so-called “bad” cholesterol; low HDL cholesterol – the good stuff; and high triglycerides – fat that circulates in the blood stream. “It was – it was bad.”
“Childhood obesity is not a cosmetic disease.” So says Julia Nordgren, a pediatrician at Concord Hospital who specializes in obesity. She treated Tony.
The kinds of cholesterol and triglyceride numbers Tony had are common among her teenage patients – and very worrisome. “The heart attacks that occur in adulthood have their roots very young. So these kids who have high cholesterol are starting the disease process that is very, very difficult to reverse.”
And she says, the longer a kid is too heavy, the harder it is for them to shed the weight. “I think that that’s a myth that a lot of people are living with,” she says. “[They think] oh, they’ll grow out of it, I looked like that when I was a child; Uncle Teddy looked like my child does now, and they’re fine.”
She says that’s just not true. Parents, she says, need to know that these are the kids who end up with diabetes now and heart attacks in their forties.
Intuitively, the first step Tony took was one that research shows helps people lose weight. He called a good friend. For Tony, it was a girl named Kendall. “I was like she, she would be happy to help me through this,” he says. “I called her up and said we’re going to the supermarket, and we’re gonna get gym memberships, and she was like, OK! Let’s go! She helped. She was extremely happy to do it.”
A nutritionist helped Tony learn how to eat. He and Kendall went to the gym together, five days a week.
“I would jog one to two miles every time and I would do two miles on the bike,” he says. “Which isn’t a lot but when I was so heavy and I had changed my eating habits so drastically, and I was finding ways to make lettuce taste good, finding ways to make plain yogurt taste better, the mix of those two things, I would come home one night, sleep, wake up the next morning and see that I’d lost four pounds.”
That kind of weight loss kept him going. In less than a year, Tony lost 85 pounds – and he grew two inches.
The transformations in his life went far beyond his size.
“I was a lot more self-confident, I made a lot more friends,” he says. “I started getting involved in a lot more organizations.”
The yearbook, Key Club, Scrabble Club, the Actor’s Guild….even his grades improved. After he lost weight, he says, “I was very happy. I was a very happy kid.”
Today he is lean, bespectacled – just another college kid wearing red sneakers and hauling a backpack.
He has to watch what he eats. Which isn’t easy to do in the gourmet confines of the UNH dining hall.
But you’d never know that Tony was ever “that fat kid.”
And, of course – that’s just the way he likes it.