Baltimore teams with Weight Watchers to tackle obesity

Program aims to reduce infant mortality by helping women of childbearing age adopt healthy lifestyles

  • Tynesha Ross and her niece Naija Ross, left, 12, and daughter Kyla Teagle, 6, make a carrot cake. They are substituting apple sauce for the oil in the recipe.
Tynesha Ross and her niece Naija Ross, left, 12, and daughter… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
February 12, 2011|By Kelly Brewington, The Baltimore Sun

As a single mom struggling to navigate the work-life juggle, Tynesha Ross found herself cutting corners at dinner time. After work and exhausted, she'd make a beeline for McDonald's. Happy meals for her two kids, a value meal for her. Home. Eat. Homework. Bed.

The ease of the routine bumped up against the reality of her poor health. Overweight and unhappy, she began going to weekly Weight Watchers meetings at the community nonprofit DRU/Mondawmin Healthy Families, where she learned shortcuts for making healthy food. She lost 20 pounds in 9 weeks and, these days, chicken nuggets are chicken breast strips coated in panko breadcrumbs and baked. The kids can't tell the difference.

Ross was among the first participants in a pilot program that aims to help Baltimore women of childbearing age lose weight and live healthier lives, for themselves and the next generation. Called B'More Fit for Healthy Babies, the project is an infant mortality reduction effort and an offshoot of the Baltimore City Health Department and the Family League of Baltimore Inc.'s B'More for Healthy Babies, a three-year initiative to reduce the city's staggering infant mortality rate.

"They brought it to us to teach us that we can live longer, healthier lives for our children," said Ross, 29, who has a 6-year-old daughter and a son who is 2.

Launched in September with $100,000 in stimulus money, the program offered 93 women in three low-income city neighborhoods free Weight Watchers meetings and passes to the YMCA for nine weeks. Participants lost more than 300 pounds combined, and many kept going to Weight Watchers meetings after their subsidy had expired. Officials with the Health Department and Family League have applied for a grant from the federal Office of Women's Health to expand the program throughout the city over the next five years.

Organizers plan to target low-income women, teens through mid-30s of childbearing age, at highest risk for bad birth outcomes.

In 2009, Baltimore's infant mortality rate was 13.5 per 1,000 live births, nearly twice the statewide rate of 7.2 deaths per 1,000 live births, and a source of frustration for city leaders who have been working for years to devise strategies for combating the problem.

To make a true dent in the problem, officials realized, they needed to focus on women's health before conception. Last year, Health Department staff began noticing more overweight women entering their home-visiting programs, which aid low-income women in high-risk pregnancies. And in examining the city's 128 fetal and infant deaths in 2009, many of the births were to overweight and obese women, they found.

"The rate at which our population is becoming obese is pretty astonishing," said Rebecca Dineen, director of the B'more for Healthy Babies campaign. "This is not something we can just throw our hands up at and say, 'This is too difficult to tackle.' We have an obligation to tackle it."

Medical research shows that obesity increases the likelihood of hypertension and diabetes during pregnancy and other complications, leading to complex deliveries and bad outcomes, said Dr. Robert Atlas, chief of obstetrics at Mercy Medical Center, where nearly a third of Baltimore babies were born last year.

Atlas, who has been working with the city on the initiative, has seen those problems firsthand. More than half — 52 percent — of the nearly 3,000 deliveries at Mercy were to mothers who were obese at the time of birth, he said. The result is longer labors and higher C-section rates for obese patients, which increases the risk of complications.

"I've seen complicated deliveries, infections, overwhelming sepsis and long-term health issues after delivery — it's challenging," he said. "I see a number of obese women who have preterm births, where everything is fine at 20 weeks, then suddenly they come and deliver a fetus that is not going to survive and there are no other risk factors other than obesity itself."

For women like Ross who have enrolled in the city's pilot program, the obstacles are great. Many are too poor to afford a gym membership and live in neighborhoods where fresh produce is a luxury.

Weight Watchers itself, with five locations in Baltimore City and County, holds most of its meetings in suburban and affluent communities. The typical cost is $13 a week plus a $20 registration fee. It's still a novelty in urban areas and many of the participants didn't think the program would work for them, said Joanne Smith, who leads the Weight Watchers group at DRU/Mondawmin.

Smith, who grew up in Sandtown and has been a Weight Watchers member since the 1970s, said she could relate to a lot of the women in the group. She tailored her meetings to their needs: offering Monday evening meetings with child care and topics she knew would resonate with participants.

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