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Study Wants to Help Teen Moms Lose Weight

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ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Before she became a teen mom, Emma Richardson played high school sports and wore a size 8.

But 27 months after daughter Kayla's birth, Richardson feels stuck in a size 16 body, forced to wear ``older people's clothes'' instead of the hot styles for her generation.

``I feel fat,'' the 18-year-old high school junior said. ``Like a bear in hibernation.''

Richardson, 5-feet-4 and 180 pounds, would like to lose weight but said her busy schedule doesn't allow for basketball or for reading food labels, so her ``belly and hips'' aren't budging.

She'd use a gym membership, but can't afford it. She'd walk, but her urban neighborhood is too dangerous. She'd take her daughter outdoors more often, but Kayla's asthma keeps them inside during St. Louis' hot, humid summers.

Richardson also feels tempted by the high-calorie foods the rest of her family eats.

``They're all eating in front of me,'' she said in frustration. ``My mom will say, 'That's all you're going to eat? Take more.'''

Researchers at St. Louis University School of Public Health hope to help young women like Richardson lose weight gained during pregnancy. The school's Obesity Prevention Center has a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to study how best to do that. Avoiding obesity helps prevent future heart problems, diabetes and some cancers.

The university and its St. Louis-based partner, Parents as Teachers, will launch a five-year study to test the effectiveness of various strategies on 1,900 overweight teen moms in nine states _ Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Delaware, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.

The strategies combine diet and exercise and emphasize how small changes in behavior can reap big results, said Debra Haire-Joshu, principal investigator and obesity center director.

The study _ the first of its kind _ will focus on overweight single moms of all racial groups, ages 15 to 18.

Each woman must be enrolled in Parents as Teachers, an international program that helps educate parents about early childhood development, health and other issues. The parent educators will make additional home visits to help moms change bad diet habits and make healthier choices.

The young women will be advised to drink water and low-fat milk instead of soft drinks, and to replace junk food with pretzels, fruit and fresh vegetables. They'll learn to limit portion size, read food labels, and to walk, take the stairs, and get up off the couch.

Internet chat rooms and message boards will be set up as a support network. The curriculum and strategies will be based in part on the obstacles teen moms identify in national focus groups set to begin in February, research coordinator Amanda Harrod said.

The program will be evaluated after two years, and its most effective strategies will be promoted nationally through Parents as Teachers.

``If we don't intervene now, we'll see (health problems) when they're 30,'' Haire-Joshu said.

Retaining weight after childbirth is a predictor of developing long-term obesity, as well as other diseases, she added. Overweight teens are more than 12 times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime, and are also at risk for colorectal and breast cancer, Haire-Joshu said.

However, it's hard for young mothers to make responsible choices in an environment that offers mostly unhealthy options. ``We can teach it all we want, but if their experience is fast food and sodas, and it's easier to get that instead of milk,'' she said, it's going to be tough.

Researchers say teens today enter pregnancy heavier than ever and frequently gain more than is recommended. Then, they're not able to lose it.

Miesha Haywood, 17, hasn't lost any of the 220 pounds on her 5-foot-8 frame since giving birth in June 2004.

``I've grown up with fried foods,'' she said. ``I don't know how to bake chicken.''

She was surprised to hear that skipping breakfast and consuming lots of soft drinks and fast food may be thwarting her weight loss.

Like Richardson, Haywood said she struggles to make good food choices when the less healthy options are all around her.

``I want to do it,'' she said, ``but I need a push, someone to be on my team. I'm lazy.''

She said her mother has her own weight problem.

``She's on me about my grades ... but not my weight,'' she said.
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