obesity

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Study: Maternal Obesity And Diabetes Bring ‘Multiple Hits,’ May Raise Autism Risk In Children

A provocative new study finds that children born to mothers with a combination of obesity and diabetes before and during pregnancy may have up to four times the risk of developing autism spectrum disorder.

On their own, obesity as well as pre-pregnancy diabetes or gestational diabetes increase the risk of autism slightly, researchers report. But the study suggests that co-occurring obesity and diabetes may bring “multiple hits” to the developing fetal brain, conferring an even higher risk of autism in the offspring than either condition on its own.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder, which also includes Asperger syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders.

This new study — led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and published in the journal Pediatrics — was based on analyzing the medical records of 2,734 children who have been followed from birth at the Boston Medical Center between 1998 and 2014. (Of that group, 102 of the children had a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. )

So what might be leading to this increased autism risk? Researchers don’t really know, but they raise several theories in the paper. In general, the possible mechanisms relate to immune and metabolic system disturbances associated with maternal obesity and diabetes that might cause inflammation and other problems for the developing fetus.

One of the study authors, Daniele Fallin, an epidemiologist and chair of the Department of Mental Health at Hopkins’ public health school, said in an interview: “We know that both diabetes and obesity create stress on the body, generally, and a lot of that stress manifests in disruption of immune processes and inflammation. Once you have the disruption in the mom, that may lead to inflammation problems in the developing fetus, and inflammation during neurodevelopment can create problems that manifest as autism.” Continue reading

Analysis: Can Mindful Eating Really Help You Lose Weight Or Stop Binging?

(t-mizo/Flickr)

(t-mizo/Flickr)

Updated 1/23

By Jean Fain
Guest Contributor

Mindfulness is all the rage. But does mindful eating — paying very close attention to your food and to your body’s signs of true hunger and satiety — really help you lose weight or stop binging?

On the one hand, paying closer attention to how you eat and why seems like a no-brainer for improved health. But in fact, mindful eating is steeped in controversy — pitting doctors against nutritionists, parents against children, therapists against clients, even colleagues against one another.

Proponents of mindful eating (also known as intuitive eating) like nutrition researcher Linda Bacon and other advocates of “Health at Every Size” — a self-described political movement promoting healthy habits and self-acceptance, rather than diets — recite a lengthy list of benefits related to mindful eating.

Critics of mindful eating offer a number of negatives: some say such navel-gazing about food makes it unappetizing, while others say mindful eating is superficial and ineffective, even irresponsible when it supplants traditional treatments for life-threatening eating issues.

Still others, like many who posted comments on my recent NPR interview with Jean Kristeller, author of the book, “The Joy of Half a Cookie,” dismiss mindful eating as a joke. One example: “Yes, let’s add more dietary neurosis to the babel of nutritional advice. How about this: eat the whole cookie. Have two, even. Just eat cookies less often, and eat nutritious food as the rule rather than the exception.”

According to Dr. James Greenblatt, an eating disorder expert, chief medical officer of Walden Behavioral Care and the author of “Answers to Binge Eating,” mindful eating is not only pointless in some cases, it’s potentially dangerous.

“Mindful eating clearly has a place in our treatment plans,” Greenblatt explained in a recent email exchange. “But, as a sole intervention for some of our patients, it is like asking opiate abusers to utilize mindful heroin detox. Many eating disorders reflect a severe neurochemical abnormality that needs to be addressed with biological interventions first, before adding other psychotherapeutic strategies and mindfulness.”
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Health Analyst Scans New Obesity Options From Drugs To Devices, Heads Back To Gym

Dr. Fiona Clement, an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Science at the University of Calgary, writes in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine about her own struggle with obesity. (Courtesy)

Dr. Fiona Clement, an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Science at the University of Calgary, writes in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine about her own struggle with obesity. (Courtesy)

This will not be welcome news for all of us who resolved to eat less and move more this year, but still secretly hoped that maybe medicine would step in. Maybe some novel treatment would reach maturity just as our willpower waned — a drug, a device, some new twist on surgery.

Sigh. The journal JAMA Internal Medicine is just out with an up-to-date analysis of options for treating obesity, accompanied by editor Fiona Clement’s vivid personal account of her own struggles with weight. The conclusion she draws from the latest data: “After much thought and brutal honesty with myself, I would not pursue any of the interventions; the risks outweigh the benefit,” she writes. “I’m off to the gym.”

I spoke with Dr. Clement, an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Science at the University of Calgary, about her take on the data and her decision to discuss her own obesity — and even reveal her Body Mass Index — in print. “This is by far the bravest thing I’ve ever written, and perhaps ever done,” she says.

“After much thought and brutal honesty with myself, I would not pursue any of the interventions; the risks outweigh the benefit.”

– Dr. Fiona Clement

But first, a distillation of the data from lead author Dr. Dan Ollendorf, chief scientific officer at the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review in Boston. The review is actually geared for doctors, but here’s his summary for the general public:

Surgery: “The evidence is pretty consistent that these procedures do lead to significant weight loss in the short-term, up to about two years of follow-up. The challenge with the evidence available is that after two years, it’s a a bit of a black box. It’s unknown what actually happens. There’s some suggestion that in a pretty significant number of situations, patients actually regain weight. In cases where other conditions related to obesity, like diabetes, have improved or resolved as a result of surgery, that can be reversed in some individuals. And so that is the really big unknown with surgery: What are the longer term outcomes for patients?”

• New drugs: “The bottom line is that this is sort of more of the same. A number of drugs have been used — some FDA-approved and labeled for weight loss, others used off-label for weight loss. The new drugs result in relatively modest reductions in weight, really not very different from the existing medications that have been available for decades. They are very high cost and in some cases have the potential for really significant side effects. So there really is mixed evidence, and the benefit, if any, that appears to be available with the current evidence is pretty modest.”

Devices: “This is kind of a heart-wrenching situation because surgery is a major step for people. Most of the advanced surgical programs in the U.S. have been able to reduce their complication rates, but this is still a risky surgery, and there are some major complications that can occur. And given that medications have produced only modest weight reductions, there’s been a lot of interest in trying to produce something that may be less invasive than surgery but more effective than medication. Continue reading

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Why To Exercise (During Pregnancy) Today: Ob-Gyns Say It's Best Time To Boost Health

il-young ko/Flickr

il-young ko/Flickr

Yes, they’ve told us this before: If you’re pregnant, you needn’t refrain from exercise. But now, the influential (and fairly conservative) professional group of U.S. obstetricians and gynecologists is saying it even more forcefully: If you’re pregnant and facing no complications, you really should exercise — it’s the ideal time to improve your health, including your weight.

In an updated committee opinion, the group, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)says: “Women with uncomplicated pregnancies should be encouraged to engage in physical activities before, during, and after pregnancy.”

The list of recommended activities includes: walking, swimming, stationary cycling, low-impact aerobics, yoga (modified and not hot), pilates (also modified), running, jogging, racket sports and strength training, and all with the usual caveats to check with your doctor first.

Importantly, the opinion says: “Some patients, obstetrician–gynecologists, and other obstetric care providers are concerned that regular physical activity during pregnancy may cause miscarriage, poor fetal growth, musculoskeletal injury, or premature delivery. For uncomplicated pregnancies, these concerns have not been substantiated…” Continue reading

Fatal Fat Shaming? How Weight Discrimination May Lead To Premature Death

Jeff Newell, left, in November 2014, and then on Oct. 18 of this year, after finishing his first road race (Courtesy)

Jeff Newell, left, in November 2014, and then on Oct. 18 of this year, after finishing his first road race (Courtesy)

As soon as the chair broke under the weight of his 533 pounds, Jeff Newell knew he wouldn’t get the job.

With a background in customer service and a culinary arts degree, Newell, of Taunton, Massachusetts, had been searching fruitlessly for work for several years. Finally, a great job near his home opened up that seemed a perfect fit with his credentials. But then came the chair-breaking incident. Humiliating, yes, but even more infuriating because the interviewer, offering neither help nor an apology, simply shook her head and made a face.

“I knew what she was thinking: ‘This person is overweight and he’s going to be lazy and why should I hire him?’ ” Newell said. The situation was mortifying emotionally, but also took a physical toll. Newell broke out in a sweat, his heart racing.

The sort of weight-based discrimination that he says he experienced is not just unpleasant and stressful; it may actually lead to premature death, a recent study finds.

While earlier research has shown that weight discrimination is associated with poor health outcomes for a variety of reasons, the new study, led by researchers at Florida State University, concludes that in addition, “weight discrimination may shorten life expectancy.”

The new analysis found an association only, and no causal link between discrimination and life expectancy. Still, researchers in the field say the paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, adds to a growing body of literature pointing to the deep, long-term impact of weight bias and discrimination.

“I think this is one of the most important papers to come out in the research of weight stigma,” said A. Janet Tomiyama, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studies weight stigma and directs UCLA’s Dieting, Stress, and Health Laboratory. “The finding itself is astonishing, but even more significant is that they were able to replicate the finding across two very high quality cohort studies. The crucial implication here is that the stigma alone of being heavy can be harmful to health — and we know that weight stigma is rampant in this country.”

The findings emerged after researchers analyzed data from two separate national studies: the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), with more than 13,000 participants, and the Midlife in the United States Study (MIDUS), with more than 5,000 participants. The two studies (conducted about 10 years apart) both included reports on perceived discrimination, including weight discrimination.

The new analysis found that weight discrimination was associated with an increase in mortality risk of nearly 60 percent among both HRS and MIDUS participants and also that the increased risk “was not accounted for by common physical and psychological risk factors.” In other words, the health effects of the discrimination were teased out from the health effects of the weight itself.

In an interview, Angelina Sutin, the study’s lead researcher and an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine at Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee, said the big surprise was that even after statistically controlling for other factors such as body-mass index, level of disease, depression and smoking, among others, the experience of weight discrimination was linked with people dying earlier than expected.

“What was really surprising was that the association was there not just in one sample but in two, and the associations were almost identical,” Sutin said.

Weight discrimination and bias are widespread, according to an overview on the stigma of obesity, and that translates into inequities in employment, health care and education

And that stigma appears to contribute to a “vicious cycle,” according to Tomiyama, of UCLA, who writes about “a positive feedback loop wherein weight stigma begets weight gain.”

Indeed, in an earlier study, Tomiyama found that children labeled as “too fat” had an increased risk of having an obese body mass index nearly a decade later.

So why might stigma be causing such problems, and possibly contributing to premature death?

That question wasn’t addressed in the recent study, but Sutin offered some informed speculation.

“Part of it might be stress that people are carrying around with them,” she said. But sometimes it’s where the discrimination comes from that’s meaningful. For instance, she said: “Families are often the source of weight discrimination,” and that can be particularly painful, since “families are supposed to be a support.”

Also, several studies find that weight bias is rampant among medical students and other health care providers. Even eating disorder specialists are not immune to negative stereotypes about obese patients, according to a 2014 study. This attitude among health care professionals can lead to delays in care and treatment, and also misdiagnoses, experts say.

Much of the research on weight stigma and discrimination is led by Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and a professor in the Department of Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Connecticut. She said there are several possible mechanisms at work that could contribute to premature mortality for people subject to weight discrimination.

“Other studies have found that when people are exposed to weight stigma or discrimination, that they actually experience elevated physiological stress responses (e.g., cortisol reactivity, blood pressure) which could contribute to poor health outcomes,” Puhl wrote in an email. “In addition, studies show that exposure to weight stigma can also lead to increased calorie intake, food consumption, and binge eating, which could play roles as well. The idea here is that weight stigma can induce emotional distress, which in turn becomes a trigger for turning to some of these maladaptive eating patterns as temporary coping strategies to alleviate those negative feelings.”

Sarah Bramblette, who has a master’s degree in health law, says even though she suffers from a medical condition called Lipedema that contributed to her current weight of over 400 pounds, she has been subjected to weight discrimination throughout her life. While she says some of the nasty comments hurt her feelings, it’s the bias from health professionals that has the greatest impact.

Here’s how Bramblette opened her recent TedxNSU talk at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale:

When I first appeared on stage, what was your perception of me? Lazy, disgusting, perhaps depressed, unmotivated, unhealthy? Based on my appearance it’s usually assumed… that my weight and my condition in life are self-induced. That’s not true, but often I don’t get a second chance to make a first impression….Weight bias that I’ve experienced in health care has hurt me physically. When doctors and nurses have the perception that I’m lazy and unmotivated and noncompliant, that influences the care they provide and it has a negative impact on my health.

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Peering Into The Placenta, ‘Least Understood’ And Respected Of Human Organs

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

If you’ve been pregnant, did you ever think about your placenta? Did you even have an image of it in your mind’s eye?

Your uterus, sure, especially as it grew and grew. Your fetus, of course, aided by grainy ultrasound print-outs. But your placenta, that essential life-support system, that unique biological bridge that is neither truly you nor your child — probably not so much, unless you faced a rare and risky complication. (Or you’re a member of the very small club that believes in eating bits of the afterbirth — please don’t make me go there.)

Personally, through a miscarriage and two pregnancies, I never gave my placenta a single thought. But new research suggests that by ignoring the placenta, we may miss out — not just on a personal level but a societal one.

“The placenta is basically the last frontier in human organs,” says radiologist Dr. P. Ellen Grant of Boston Children’s Hospital. “It’s the least understood, yet arguably one of the most important organs. For years it’s been neglected, and we’re only beginning to understand the complex role of the placenta in fetal development from conception to delivery, and in long-term outcomes not only for the fetus but also for the mother.”

Dr. Grant’s team has just won a nearly $5 million grant to develop better methods to image and monitor the placenta during pregnancy.

“The placenta is actually the Rodney Dangerfield of organs.”

– Dr. Diana Bianchi

It will focus in particular on pregnant women who are obese, a growing population that faces higher risks of complications, including pre-term birth, stillbirth and pre-eclampsia.

The grant is part of the Human Placenta Project, a major new federal effort that is funding a total of $46 million in research. The project aims to counter that longstanding neglect and increase understanding of the placenta’s role in disease.

“The placenta is actually the Rodney Dangerfield of organs,” says Dr. Diana Bianchi, executive director of the Mother Infant Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center, who was involved in the federal strategizing that led to the Human Placenta Project. (Note to young folks: Dangerfield was a comedian famed for his complaint, “I don’t get no respect.”)

“The placenta, until now, really hasn’t gotten respect by funding authorities and it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention,” Bianchi continued. As parents-to-be focus on the fetus, she said, most “don’t realize that the placenta is essentially the foundation for the normal development of the baby, because it supplies nutrients, it supplies oxygen, it takes the waste products away from the baby, and it also is an amazing machine for the production of hormones. So it’s doing an amazing amount of work during the entire pregnancy, and yet at the very end of it, it’s thrown out.”

Dr. P. Ellen Grant (courtesy)

Dr. P. Ellen Grant (courtesy)

Given all that critical work, surely if the placenta falls down on the job in any way, complications of pregnancy may result.

Pre-eclampsia, a potentially life-threatening complication of pregnancy that affects up to 8 percent of mothers-to-be, is directly related to the placenta, Dr. Bianchi said. It involves “an abnormal development of the placenta, in that the placenta doesn’t really invade the mother’s uterus correctly, and the consequence of that is abnormal blood flow between the baby and its mother.”

Obesity is so widespread in America that among some sub-populations of women, more than half are obese, Dr. Grant said. Continue reading

Study: Kids Are Dumping Fruits And Veggies Offered At School — But Don’t Give Up Yet

A study found that students put more fruits and vegetables on their trays, as required, but consumed fewer of them and increased waste by approximately 56 percent. (Courtesy of Sally McCay/UVM Photography)

A study found that students put more fruits and vegetables on their trays, as required, but consumed fewer of them and increased waste by approximately 56 percent. (Courtesy of Sally McCay/UVM Photography)

File this one under: You can lead a horse to water…

Researchers at the University of Vermont report what they characterize as a “heartbreaking” finding: Many schoolkids are trashing the fruits and vegetables they are now served as part of a federal law that was supposed to nudge the kids toward healthier food choices.

The study, published online in the journal Public Health, concludes that kids are putting more fruits and vegetables on their trays, as required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (which took effect in 2012 and was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama). However, the children ate fewer of these items after the law took effect and often dumped the produce straight into the trash.

“It was heartbreaking to see so many students toss fruits and vegetables into the trash right after exiting the lunch line,” Sarah Amin, Ph.D, a UVM researcher in nutrition and food sciences and the study’s lead author, said in an interview.

For the study, researchers captured before-and-after images of school lunches. (Courtesy)

For the study, researchers captured before-and-after images of school lunches. (Courtesy)

As part of the study, researchers captured images of kids’ school lunches before they ate and then again right before they dumped uneaten foods into the trash. So, for instance, the child might choose a school lunch (pictured on the left) of chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, green beans and milk. But, when the child is done eating, it’s clear the greens beens remain untouched.

The study concludes:

Children consumed fewer (fruits and vegetables) FVs and wasted more FVs during the school year immediately following implementation of the USDA rule that required them to take one fruit or vegetable at lunch. Average waste increased from one-quarter cup to more than one-third of a cup/tray, with about one-eighth cup/tray more FVs discarded, or a total of about 56 cups/day/school (based on an average of 400 lunches served/day).

Researcher Amin, who will soon begin a post doctorate fellowship at Tufts, said that while the initial findings might seem disheartening and show some unintended consequences of the federal law, it’s worth remaining hopeful.

She pointed out that “this was the first update to these regulations in 15 years and kids were really acclimated to how the environment was before,” and not used to choosing either one fruit or one vegetable with lunch.

“Maybe you can’t just put these foods in front of them and expect them to eat,” she said. “But it may just be too soon.”

For younger kids entering kindergarten, for example, “this may work,” Amin said, because it’s all the children know. “But for older kids used to the old system, this may rock their world because they’re just not used to it.

“I still think the guidelines [which are up for reauthorization next month] are necessary,” she said. “We have a childhood obesity epidemic and the guidelines were put in place to address it. … A little bit of waste at the get go may be a sacrifice we have to make for the health and well being of children in the long term.” Continue reading

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Possible Key To Weight Loss? Researchers Find ‘Master Switch’ To Crank Up Fat-Burning

Researchers say new science on a “metabolic master switch"  may hold the promise of someday making a dent in the obesity epidemic. (Courtesy UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity)

Researchers say new science on a “metabolic master switch” may hold the promise of someday making a dent in the obesity epidemic. (Courtesy UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity)

Here’s my fantasy: I’ve overindulged — let’s say, purely theoretically, on Cape Cod fried clams, french fries and beer — and would normally face the greasy regret and resign myself to extra carrots and cardio in the days to come.

But no. Instead, I simply pop a pill that cranks up my metabolism for a few hours so that I burn the extra calories instead of storing them as fat. I don’t gain an ounce.

That’s a very distant prospect. But new science on a “metabolic master switch,” just out in the New England Journal of Medicine, brings my dream one step closer to reality — and, researchers say, may hold the promise of someday making a dent in the obesity epidemic.

Until now, weight-loss treatments have focused on altering appetite and exercise, says MIT computer science professor Manolis Kellis, senior author on the paper. Now, “what we have in our hands is a third knob, if you wish, for controlling body fat,” he says. “It’s working directly on your fat cells to reprogram them to burn more energy rather than to store it as fat.”

In normal-weight mice, Kellis says, the effects of turning that knob are dramatic: “By changing the expression of one gene in these mice, they lose 50 percent of their body weight. You can feed them all the fat you want and they will not take on weight. They do not exercise more and they do not eat less, what they do is simply burn more energy when they’re awake, or even in their sleep.”

Dr. Melina Claussnitzer is lead author on the fat-burning paper just out in the New England Journal of Medicine. (Courtesy of Lovely Valentine)

Dr. Melina Claussnitzer (Courtesy of Lovely Valentine)

But mice are not men, of course. Could this work in humans?

“We experimented on human fat cells,” says Melina Claussnitzer, first author of the paper, a visiting professor at MIT and faculty member at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “And we found that we could flip them from energy-storing to energy-burning by altering the expression of a single gene — and, even more remarkably, by altering a single letter from our 3-billion-letter genome. And we could flip that switch back in either direction.”

Still, it’s a very long way from genetically editing human cells in a Petri dish to altering the metabolism of a breathing human, the researchers caution. The team has filed patents on their switch-flipping manipulations and are seeking to commercialize the approach and lead it into human clinical trials, Kellis says, but cannot speculate on a time frame.

So meanwhile, there’s no such thing as a free fried clam. But we can at least savor the story of how this cutting-edge science came to be.

Let’s begin in 2007, when researchers turned up the first genetic link to obesity, a region of the genome called FTO. To this day, it remains the strongest genome-obesity link: Some 44 percent of Europeans, it turns out, have a version that predisposes them to weigh more, on average five to seven pounds.

The natural next question was: How does it work? Does it make people eat more? Move less? Both?

Or neither, says Claussnitzer. “Despite seven years of intense efforts to hunt down a mechanism, no link has been made between the genetic differences in the region and altered functions in the brain.” Continue reading

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Boston Moms: Let’s Spend Olympics Savings On Gym And Recess For Kids

(Steven Depolo/Flickr)

(Steven Depolo/Flickr)

By Kate Lowenstein
 and Ramika Smith
Guest contributors

We have a suggestion for how to spend some of the billions of dollars that Boston will likely save by not hosting the Olympics: How about we invest even 1 percent of that into the bodies and brains of our children by ensuring they get ample physical education and recess time?

Instead of spending billions to have elite adult athletes playing sports in our city, we can at least give our own Boston Public Schools kids the chance to run and play here.

Most parents of kids in the city’s public schools assume their children get recess every day, as we did when we were kids, but the reality turns out to be quite different. While the CDC recommends that all children get at least 60 minutes of vigorous exercise every day, and at least 30 minutes of school-time physical activity, many of our schools allow for as little as 20 minutes, if that.

Over the past two decades, accelerated by No Child Left Behind’s focus on testing, the tendency has been to reduce or eliminate physical education and recess. And our school administrators and legislators look the other way without recognizing the overwhelming amount of evidence that shows the significant academic and mental health benefits of these physical activity breaks.

Recess and physical education are as integral to a long school day as are Math, Science, and English.

In January of 2009, the journal Pediatrics published a groundbreaking study of 11,000 third-graders, comparing those who had little or no daily recess with those that had more than 15 minutes of recess per day. The findings show that children who have more recess time behave better in the classroom and are likelier to learn more.

In January of this year, The Boston Foundation released a report: “Active Bodies, Active Minds: A Case Study on Physical Activity and Academic Success in Lawrence, Massachusetts.” The report found that only 15 to 20 percent of Massachusetts children are meeting the 60-minute daily recommendation for physical activity and only 10.2 percent were meeting the school-time recommendation of 30 minutes.

It also underscored what we already know from many other studies; that children in schools that provide an adequate amount of time and opportunity (and encouragement) for daily physical activity, in the form of recess, gym classes and movement breaks, have higher MCAS scores in both math and ELA. Continue reading

Roxbury Center Targets Health Disparities In Boston’s Poorest Neighborhoods

Whittier Street Health Center opened its community vegetable garden on June 24. (Courtesy of Chris Aduama)

Whittier Street Health Center opened its community vegetable garden on June 24. (Courtesy of Chris Aduama)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth Intern

When it comes to health in Boston, it’s hard to deny there’s a great divide across neighborhoods.

Need proof? A 2013 Boston Public Health Commission report found that, from 2000 to 2009, the average life expectancy for Boston residents was 77.9 years. But in the Back Bay, it was higher — 83.7 years — compared to Roxbury, where the average life expectancy was 74.

If you want to get even more local, you can analyze the same data by census tract, where life expectancy varies by as many as 33 years: 91.9 years in the Back Bay area between Massachusetts Avenue and Arlington Street, and 58.9 years in Roxbury, between Mass. Ave. and Dudley Street and Shawmut Avenue and Albany Street. That’s according to a 2012 report from the Center on Human Needs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

The Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury is trying to tackle the disparities in a very concrete way. With the launch of a new fitness club and community garden, the center is trying to make healthy food and exercise opportunities available and affordable to all, despite geography.

“What we’re trying to do is to remove those social determinants and barriers that are causing these [health] disparities,” said Frederica Williams, president and CEO of the health center.

‘If I Sweat, I’m Doing Something Right’

The fitness club and garden initiatives just launched June 27, but the Whittier Health and Wellness Institute is already drawing in community members.

Eight months ago, Wanda Elliott weighed 256 pounds. On a visit to her Whittier Street physician, she learned her blood pressure was high — high enough that she had to start taking medication. That was the wake-up call that motivated her to change her diet and start exercising.

“I was dragging,” she said.

Elliott began exercising at a local Y but joined the Whittier Street fitness club when it opened. In eight months, she has lost 52 pounds, leaving her 4 pounds shy of her 200 pound goal weight.

“I have two knee replacements, so I have to keep active every day,” she said. Trainers at the center helped her learn to use the exercise machines, and now it feels like a routine, she said.

“I feel addicted to working out. I feel like if I sweat, I’m doing something right,” she said. “From 256 to 204, I feel like a model. I can walk the runway; that’s how energized I feel now.”

Elliott is now off her blood pressure medication. She is working on making changes to her diet “slowly but surely,” drinking more water, eating more salad, and cutting back on red meat. Continue reading