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Group launches teen-led obesity prevention movement

When it comes to making healthy choices, teenagers don’t always listen to the adults in their lives.

That’s why Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, a Charleston pediatrician and the director of KEYS 4 Healthy Kids, a Charleston-based organization intent on reversing childhood obesity trends in the state, decided to find a way to reach teenagers — by encouraging them to reach each other.

“When we were thinking about our long-term goals — one of the things I always say is, look at all the good things going on around gardening, around school menus, around standards, but I still see patients in my clinic who aren’t benefiting from this. Why aren’t we moving the needle to the point it needs to be moved? That’s what we asked ourselves,” Jeffrey said. “When did we make an impact with teens not smoking in West Virginia? It was with RAZE — it was when the kids got involved themselves.”

Dewey Caruthers, a South Charleston native and the chief strategist of the youth anti-smoking campaign RAZE, has joined with KEYS and Healthy Kids, Inc. to develop a campaign for high schools that will encourage healthy eating.

The campaign, WV is FED UP, will mimic RAZE’s “youth-created, youth-led and youth-spread” message, and Caruthers said KEYS has already held several focus groups at area schools to determine what the movement will look like.

“It’s my role to help these youth develop a movement,” he said. “We’re teaching them to be activists and advocates, and that’s a big part of the campaign.”

According to a report released by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, West Virginia has the second-highest adult obesity rate in the nation at 35.7 percent. According to a research report in Diabetes Care, people who consume sugary drinks regularly — one to two cans a day or more — have a 26 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who rarely consume such drinks.

One in six children and teens in the U.S. are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, teenagers had the highest rates of obesity among youth; more than 20 percent of 12 to 19 year olds were obese, compared to 8.4 percent of 2 to 5-year-olds and 17.7 percent of 6 to 11-year-olds, according to the CDC.

“We did a white paper two years ago and met with some legislators, and the obesity projection for West Virginia in 15 years is 60 percent, and that doesn’t include those who are merely overweight,” Carruthers said. “Six in 10 people will be obese ... we were asking legislators ‘how are you going to pay for this?’ Forget that morally, it’s wrong for the state to create a culture of children growing up in obesity, but how will you pay for it?”

The campaign is an extension of a movement by KEYS to educate West Virginia students on the dangers of highly processed foods and added sugar. In November, the organization partnered with Healthy Kids Inc., an online meal-planning tool, to provide access to the 2014 documentary “Fed Up” to every public school in West Virginia. The documentary, narrated by Katie Couric, explores the root causes of the obesity epidemic in the U.S. — specifically, the role of hidden sugars in the processed foods that have become staples in the American diet.

According to Jeffrey, younger children’s eating habits tend to be easier to influence, but she is hopeful that with Caruthers’ help, KEYS will be able to move the needle on obesity for kids who have already formed their eating habits.

Caruthers, whose grandfather died of lung cancer, said he was inspired by his own struggle to start RAZE, and watching teenagers fight against the health problems that affect their families drove him to continue his efforts with WV is FED UP.

“What I’m seeing from these teens inspires me,” Caruthers said. “I was blessed to be able to come back to my home state to help create the RAZE campaign ... and in doing research, I’ve seen so many students who have parents, family members, siblings, who are suffering the consequences of obesity.

“I am hugely impressed with the intellect, analytical thinking and energy of West Virginia students.”

Reach Lydia Nuzum at, 304-348-5189 or follow

@lydianuzum on Twitter.

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