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COMPASS program sends parents and children in the right direction for weight loss

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 27, 2010 - After making their trip to the Farmers' Market in Ferguson to buy fresh fruits and vegetables each week, Teresa Trout and her son, Trevor, used to drop in at a doughnut shop and feast on cupcakes and other sugary food on the way home.

Those sweet treats finally caught up with Trevor, a bright, 10-year-old fifth grader whose weight climbed to 154 pounds a little over four months ago. Today, however, he has dropped to 127 pounds, a slimmer version of the chubby-faced boy in a photo atop the family piano.

"I created the monster myself," Teresa Trout said recently as she talked about the weight problem in the household. "My husband and I are overweight, and I realized if I didn't do something about Trevor now, he'd be just like me later. I didn't want that to happen. That's the reason I think this program is a good thing."

She's referring to a program, called COMPASS, that's run by Washington University Medical School. COMPASS helps kids and their parents control their appetites, lose pounds and keep them off. It's a timely effort: At least one in every five Missouri children between the ages of 5 and 11 is estimated to be overweight.

COMPASS is an acronym for Comprehensive Maintenance Program to Achieve Sustained Success. Its goal is to reduce childhood obesity by working with children and their parents. Participants get free weight-loss and maintenance support for a year. Each child who enrolls must come with at least one overweight parent, says Dorothy J. Van Buren, an assistant research professor at Washington University.

COMPASS researchers believe parents can be the key to their children's weight loss by making healthy choices for themselves, which indirectly benefit and influence the youngsters.

"Parents are the gatekeeper for healthy behavior at home," she says. "It's much easier to help children who are overweight if their parents are involved."

Too many youngsters end up overweight, she says, and then develop illnesses ranging from diabetes to heart disease.

COMPASS is underwritten by a federal grant that seeks to determine the most effective treatment for helping families lose weight and keep off the pounds throughout their lives.

Helping kids shed excessive weight permanently is a big challenge, Van Buren concedes, noting that people who lose weight tend to regain it within a year. But she says COMPASS is different. Families have access to health specialists who offer individual plans that help families work on both eating habits and physical activity.

Though she offered no specifics, Van Buren says the program is having "excellent results" with the first group of families, including the Trouts, that have completed the initial 16 weeks of the program. "Many of them have lost weight" and improved their health as a result, Van Buren says, adding that "COMPASS has given the families more options for increasing physical activity, learning how to prepare food in healthier ways, and educating people about the calories they're consuming."

Van Buren mentioned an 11-year-old COMPASS participant who weighed more than 200 pounds.

"It's certainly a big challenge without support. So that's the advantage of a program like ours" that involves parents and children working together. "Nothing like this is readily available. When you need to start modifying your weight at that age, you really need a lot of help from your parents. What we aim for is one half a pound to a pound of weight loss weekly."

The participants also are expected to let researchers follow them for a year after they complete the program. The program involves no medication, Van Buren says. Participants are paid $50 at the end of the 12-month treatment period, another $75 on the sixth month after the treatment ends, followed by $100 at a one-year follow-up study.


Teresa Trout, who works for Quest Diagnostics, didn't get involved in COMPASS to make a buck. But she says she already is seeing dividends.

"It has paid off," she says. "The first 16 weeks was about weight loss. The rest of this course is about behavior change and modification."

She says some of the modifications are surprisingly simple.

"It's about utilizing things in your neighborhood. There's a park up the street, but until now, I never thought of using it. When you go to the store, it makes sense to walk the four blocks to the store. Before this program, I used to take my car. We also walk to the farmers' market, which isn't that far, and we don't stop to buy cupcakes."

She and young Trevor also have noticed the positive reaction from people.

"Now people who see Trevor who haven't seen him in a long time want to know, 'What are you doing?' He has a friend who's overweight and wants to do what Trevor did. My niece also called me one day after church and said she really wanted to lose weight and wanted to know if she can do what Trevor did."

Trevor stutters slightly, but is articulate and, his mom says, a smart kid. She says some kids associate stuttering with being dumb. However, she can remember times when Trevor came home disappointed because he was unable to teach kids to master the math that he zips through with ease. Trevor himself adds that the stuttering and the fact that he used to walk slowly made some kids have a negative view of him.

As his mother puts it, some youngsters "haven't been taught what to say, what not to say, and that what comes up doesn't have to come out."

The Trouts are part of the first wave of the COMPASS study that eventually will involve 120 families. Teresa Trout hopes this program will help her son keep his weight under control. COMPASS researchers will spend the next 12 months offering her the skills that might grant her that wish.

Those interested in participating in this free program can reach COMPASS officials by calling 314-286-1055 or sending an email to: compass-study@wustl.edu.

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.