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Gimme Five: Nancy Lessner


This week Prevent Obesity sat down and learned about the work of Leader Nancy Lessner, a medical nutritionist with more than 20 years of private practice work. Nancy also recently finished a pilot study called “Eat Right. Drink Right. Live Right.” that tested methods of empowering and educating kids and youth in making their own healthy food choices. Connect with Nancy through her profile here.

Name: Nancy Lessner
Title: Medical Nutritionist

What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?

I’ve worked with more than 2,500 kids, teens and families in my 20+ year career in private practice. I’ve found such great success in the methods I use that I started thinking about how I can help millions of our precious children, most of which will never visit a nutritionist or RD privately.

One of the most important lessons I learned is that it is critical to educate, motivate and empower kids and teens and get them to WANT to eat healthy, to create the desire to take control of their health. Without that desire, they will just keep repeating the unhealthy eating patterns that they, in so many cases, think is normal because they grew up in a household where obesity and unhealthy eating was the norm.

While I applaud the hundreds of “top-down” programs and initiatives, I believe that a “bottoms-up” component is needed for optimal results. When kids and teens want to eat healthy, they will be more receptive to school and community programs. If they are not motivated to eat healthy, they will find ways around these programs. I’ve observed that when kids and teens are empowered to eat healthy, it spreads to siblings and parents, to the point where kids start asking or even demanding that their parents purchase healthier foods and drinks.

How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?

I developed a series of videos for kids and teens that would achieve three goals:

  1. “Gross out” kids by showing them the staggering amount of unhealthy foods and drinks they consume, and specifically what’s in them.
  2. Create a desire to change so that they can have healthy lives and avoid dozens of conditions and illnesses that are commonly linked to obese people.
  3. Present them with healthy alternatives and substitutions, especially in fast food restaurants.

After a long year of development, production and editing, “Eat Right. Drink Right. Live Right.” is finished. Many of the videos feature a diverse mix of kids, astounding demonstrations along with my professional “know and show” presentation. In a pilot test this past summer in which The Boys & Girls Club of Union County, N.J., The Gateway Family YMCA of Elizabeth, N.J. and COPE for Change of Savannah, Ga., participated, I was stunned by some extremely positive results. After watching just one of the seven videos, the kids ages 5-18 filled out surveys:

  • 68 percent said that they would change their eating and drinking habits.
  • Of that group, 76 percent reported about two weeks later that they did.
  • They reported numerous benefits, including having more energy, losing weight, feeling better about themselves and more.

I’m very excited that this approach has the potential to make a major contribution to both preventing and reversing childhood and teenage obesity. I’m now looking for partners (schools, community groups, etc.) to conduct more robust and larger tests.

What’s your biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?

If my videos turn out to be the crucial component that I think they are, then that will be a tremendous achievement. While I’ve helped so many children on a one-to-one basis, I feel compelled to help huge numbers of kids with an approach that’s easy to understand and implement, scalable and produces immediate results. The faster we find a large-scale solution that works, the faster we can prevent and reverse obesity in our children, teenagers and adults of all ages. A sense of urgency guides me in the development of the videos and in getting the word out about this promising technique.

As an example, Rachel Leone is a 10-year-old girl from Roselle Park, N.J., who used to eat chicken nuggets and fries twice a week. After watching my “Good and Bad Fast Foods” video and understanding that chicken nuggets have only 19 percent protein and have around 38 ingredients, many of which are unhealthy, she decided not to eat nuggets and fries anymore. She went from “I love chicken nuggets” to “I’m not going to eat them anymore” in less than two minutes! Three months later, she continues to avoid nuggets and fries, and has influenced her family and friends to buy healthier fare. I estimate she no longer eats about 700 nuggets and 2,000 fries a year as a result of a short video!

I am convinced that when kids become aware of how much sugar is in a 64-ounce soda (eight days’ worth), or that they consume 134 pounds of wheat flour a year―much of which is eaten as heavily processed baked goods, or how much salt is in salty snacks, they quickly decide to make positive changes. And because kids and teens are very responsive to videos in general, I believe this approach maximizes their attention spans!

What healthy snacks did you enjoy growing up?

When I was growing up, my father was very interested in organic gardening. In a small patch of our backyard, he grew many vegetables all spring and summer. We learned that a packet of seeds can produce a lot of vegetables! My mother found many ways to use the vegetables so I appreciated "eating the earth" from an early age. The pride he had in the daily crop got all of us excited to eat vegetables. Although my father has passed away, gardening and eating fresh vegetables has remained a passion of mine.

Each week, our own Prarthana Gurung speaks with a Leader to get a quick look at why he or she loves working to create healthy environments for kids. Want to take part? Visit Prarthana’s profile and contact her.