SOCIETY

FIXING GENERATION XXL

How one (thin) Canadian shrunk the kids: inside the world's first boarding school for fat teens

KATE FILLION July 24 2006
SOCIETY

FIXING GENERATION XXL

How one (thin) Canadian shrunk the kids: inside the world's first boarding school for fat teens

KATE FILLION July 24 2006

FIXING GENERATION XXL

How one (thin) Canadian shrunk the kids: inside the world's first boarding school for fat teens

SOCIETY

KATE FILLION

Audrey Guth is a Toronto businesswoman with a master’s degree in nutrition and a 15-year-old who, as of Jan. 30, weighed 321 lb. She and her husband did everything parents are supposed to—no junk food, lots of fruit and vegetables, regular exercise—and they and their three older children are slim.

But Jesse, now nearly six feet tall, has been heavy since he was 5, and the more his mother felt “the external pressure of judgment,” she says, “the harder I searched for solutions.” He has been on every diet imaginable, including one his mom invented for him, although, she sighs, “I believe in a healthy lifestyle, not dieting.” He’s tried box34

ing and exercise regimes and products you order off the TV despite skepticism regarding infomercials that promise miracles. Once, he had a CAT scan: he was gaining so fast, his parents worried he had a brain tumour. His dad has freaked out on him about not being able to stand by and watch his son self-destruct; his mom took a six-month vow of silence on the subject of weight, thinking maybe she was part of the problem. Jesse’s been to a New York “fat camp” and a therapist and a doctor who threw up his hands and advised gastric bypass surgery to shrink his stomach.

And so his mother, who runs a personnel agency and is accustomed to feeling in con-

trol, was feeling pretty desperate by the time she went on the Internet and discovered Academy of the Sierras, which bills itself as the world’s first therapeutic boarding school for overweight adolescents and costs more than Harvard: US$5,800 per month. Most commercial weight-loss programs and diet camps emphasize how easy it is to drop pounds while eating the foods you love, but AOS stresses how tough it is in an “obesogenic culture” that promotes fast food and sedentary living—so tough that a stint in a very different kind of culture, with no cellphones or laptops or other teenage trappings, is necessary. Located in Reedley, Calif., the school provides not just a high school curriculum but “an immersion program”: an extremely low-fat diet, lots of exercise, intensive cognitive-behavioural therapy, extensive selfmonitoring, and a system of “positive reinforcement” wherein “privileges”—sitting outside during free time, say—can only be earned through sustained effort.

If it sounds hellish, well, that’s because war is hell, and weight control is a form of neverending warfare. Just ask Oprah. “The enemy,” as they say at AOS, “is your own biology,” which is programmed to try to regain any weight you lose; the environment, with highcalorie convenience foods and non-stop screen time, is a minefield. What overweight kids need is basic training, and where better to get it than a boot camp-type establishment? This, at any rate, was AOS founder Ryan Craig’s reasoning, and how he convinced a company specializing in tough-love programs for teens to finance the start-up of a school that in only 22 months has positioned itself on the front lines of adolescent obesity treatment, right beside the cash register.

Craig, an ascetic 36-year-old who rises early and drinks milk and was born and raised in Toronto, had easier ways to make a lot more money: a New York merchant banker, he would have been “set for life” had he stayed put another few years. He’s never had a weight

problem, unless you count being a little too thin, and exudes a hyper-rational reverence for quantifiable results, all of which is to say, you’d be hard-pressed to find a man less likely to open a boarding school for fat kids in the San Joaquin Valley, the raisin capital of the world—or one less inclined to countenance failure, particularly when his own reputation and millions of dollars are riding on his conviction that AOS can help overweight kids slim down, permanently.

It’s hardly a safe bet. Although experts know what should work—fewer calories, more exercise, help from a dietician—it rarely does, says Dr. Jean-Pierre Chanoine of the University of British Columbia, one of the leading pediatric obesity authorities in Canada. “When a very obese kid comes to our clinic, you know his or her chances to get a clinically significant result are small, very small. This has to do with the complexity of the condition—yes, I think this is a disease: you are predisposed and, given the wrong environment, you will

develop the weight excess—and the fact that the environment is very difficult to modify.” Of those who do manage to lose weight, “95 per cent regain it all,” says Dr. Arya Sharma, professor of medicine at McMaster University and the scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network. “The only medically proven obesity treatment is medication—though a lot of people can’t take it, and for some, it’s just not enough—or surgery.”

But while Ryan Craig is a big believer in science, he is, as you might expect of a guy who bused tables and attended public school and wound up with a Yale law degree, an even bigger believer in self-determination. “Elite athletes transform their bodies and train them to do things their bodies weren’t really meant to do. Weight controllers are like athletes, transforming their bodies and training them to do what we’re not meant biologically to do: lose weight. But we can do it, and maintain it, through changing our behaviours,” he says, as though he’s made this

particular pitch many times before.

He read all the research and found a soulmate in Daniel Kirschenbaum, a psychologist at Northwestern University in Chicago who has published dozens of academic articles and four books on weight loss, whom he hired to design AOS’s clinical program. Their theory is simple: if you teach kids how to eat and exercise, train them to use new coping mechanisms so they don’t reach for a Big Mac when they fail a math test, and stick with them while they progress through the honeymoon, frustration and acceptance stages of embracing a new lifestyle, you will get clinically significant results. And a nice little business.

Which explains, more or less, how Jesse Guth came to be sitting in the cafeteria at AOS at the end of April, eating scrambled Egg Beaters and weighing 51 lb. less than he had when he arrived three months earlier. He was hungry after walking two miles—all students must exercise before breakfast, a rule that’s surprisingly easy to enforce if you wake them at seven, then lock them out of their dorm—but chewed his single slice of dry turkey bacon unhurriedly, and pronounced the taste “acquired. Slowly. Maybe never.”

He uses the same raspy, deadpan delivery to declare himself “a metrosexual, actually, and a bit of a clean freak.” Girls, it’s becoming clear, now that he wears an XL T-shirt from Old Navy rather than an XXXL from Big

and Tall, are into such declarations.

“He’s, like, the funniest guy ever,” gushes Heather Melms, The Best Friend, who’s lost 50 lb. in the past 12 months and looks like a 17-year-old version of Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island. “You can tell him anything and he won’t tell anyone, you can trust him.”

“Jesse, oh my God, he’s just so funny. And nice,” says MyaTwersky, his girlfriend, who, to be fair, might have offered a somewhat different appraisal if she’d had any clue he was going to ditch her four days later.

Physical relationships are against the rules, but staff can’t be everywhere, so, as Jesse puts it, “there’s a lot of drama, and a lot of gossip.” A lot of newfound opportunity, too. “Our whole lives, we’ve been used to not being in relationships,” says Kai Pereria, a 17-year-old from Hawaii, dumping the contents of 17 packets of Equal into his decaf coffee. “Then we come

here and it’s like a big buffet.”

For boys, anyway: about three-quarters of AOS students are girls. “There just aren’t enough of us to go around,” says Jesse, who’s decided he likes the place, despite the discomfort of attending group therapy with his

ex and the ongoing histrionics that occur when you throw a bunch of teenagers together 24/7-

AOS is located 25 unglamorous miles southeast of Fresno, on an isolated 68-acre campus complete with squawking emus, green playing fields and a cluster of dated, lowslung buildings that once housed a psychiatric facility. The place still has something of a locked-ward, circa 1950, ambience: dorm windows are alarmed, mail is searched for contraband like gum or cash, and snitches are everywhere. It’s simply not possible to drink, do drugs, have sex, hang at the mall or even watch TV (unless you’re working out on a treadmill).

And yet, in this alternate universe, a couch potato can reinvent himself as something of a jock. All he has to do is work like a maniac every day for the I. | rest of his life to fight his body’s inclination to store fat.

CHRIS ABBATIELLO, WEIGHT LOSS: 122 LB.

Some kids find that message alarming or dispiriting, and beg their parents to rescue them. Others, like Jesse, find it oddly invigorating. “For a long time, I used to think, Yeah, I’m overweight, but it doesn’t matter. I was like an alcoholic who didn’t think he

had a problem. This is going to sound weird, but I didn’t really see myself, I just saw the person I wanted to be.”

AOS has shown him how to get there. And the notion of going into battle to defend your own health is kind of cool, even if, as it turns out, your main weapon is old-fashioned self-discipline.

Some of the kids at AOS are just fat; others are spectacularly large, and walk with the laboured, rocking gait of elephants. Many know each other from diet camps, and they all say the school is different. “There, they fed you then made you run around. You’d lose weight but by the end of September, you’d gain it all back. Here, they teach you, so you learn how

JAHCOBIE COSOM, TOTAL WEIGHT LOSS: 176 LB.

to do it for yourself at home,” says Sammy Levy, 15, who is from Scarsdale, N.Y., and has an uncanny facial resemblance to J.Lo.

“They taught us that back in the time of hunters and gatherers when food was scarce, humans survived by storing fat,” says Jesse. “My body is very efficient when it comes to storing fat. You and I could eat the same thing, but my body would store it as fat and your body would burn it off. And once you have fat cells, you can’t get rid of them, they’re always there, waiting to be fed, like hungry sparrows. Partly it’s genetic, my mom was overweight as a kid.”

And partly it’s environment. In the past three decades, kids’ fast food consumption has soared while physical activity has decreased, for reasons ranging from the proliferation of remote controls to parents’ unwillingness to

let kids run around unsupervised, lest they be abducted. Consequently, Canadian teens are fatter than ever: in 2004,20 per cent between the ages of 12 and 17 were overweight, another nine per cent were obese. But the numbers are rising: The International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, whose very existence testifies to the scope of the problem, estimates that by 2010, half of all North American adolescents will be overweight.

The strain on the health care system will be huge. Obesity is associated with, among many other things, insulin resistance, diabetes, hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, depression, orthopaedic issues and increased risk for serious cardiovascular and liver trouble as well as several types of cancer. The health implications, short-term but especially long-term, are terrible and expensive, which

is one reason the Canadian government is focusing resources on prevention.

The other is that conventional treatment is so likely to fail, because “there are a number of defence mechanisms built into your brain and hard-wired into your body whose sole purpose is to bring your weight back to what it was,” explains Sharma, who is spearheading a movement to increase the accessibility of bariatric surgery, which includes several different procedures to reduce the stomach’s capacity. But surgery is trickier and carries more risks and unknowns for adolescents, and most surgeons prefer to wait until kids reach their full height because afterward, the body can’t absorb nutrients in the same way. Anyway, operating is just the beginning: patients must still modify their behaviour, eat much less and exercise more (20 to 30 per cent of adults can’t do it, and regain the weight).

At AOS, they believe kids can learn to do all that without surgery, if you put them in a controlled environment yet give them enough leeway to fail, so they build up the self-discipline they’ll need in the real world. Although higher-calorie items, such as lowfat chicken tacos, are dished out behind a counter, students are permitted unlimited amounts of “uncontrolled foods” like fruit, vegetables, soup, no-fat yogourt and diet pop. The resulting cuisine is not exactly organic: it’s not uncommon to see kids swilling Diet Coke at breakfast or eating Splenda right out of the packet.

Extreme measures for extreme problems is the school’s unofficial motto—“Moderation doesn’t work for a kid who’s 100 lb. overweight,” says Craig—and students are expected to eat just seven to 12 grams of fat per

day (one tablespoon of Jif reduced-fat peanut butter has five grams). Fat is linked to feelings of satiety, and any expert not in the employ of AOS will tell you such a low amount is not sustainable, but with three meals and two snacks, no one there is going hungry.

In order to instill “a healthy obsession,” students self-monitor religiously, recording every calorie and fat gram so they’re conscious of what they’re eating, and take culinary skills classes to learn about nutrition, portion size and low-fat cooking. They also wear pedometers and take at least 10,000 steps a day (more than twice the U.S. average), though most clock far more, what with the morning walk and at least two more activity periods where options range from soccer to swimming to working out with a trainer. Then there’s individual and group therapy three times week, and, oh yeah, six hours a day of high school classes.

Students have just 95 minutes of free time daily. How you get to spend them depends on your place in the five-tiered “summit system”; to move up and get more privileges, you must prove consistent self-monitoring and physical activity. Jesse recently reached Ascender, the third level, so he has 60 whole minutes of phone time a week and, finally, an email account.

Teenagers either view all this as oppressive yet slowly lose some weight, or they view it as helpful and rapidly lose astonishing amounts and tell anyone who will listen that AOS has

saved their lives. Yes, says Jesse, it’s hard, but there’s comfort in finding out that stuff you thought was just you—hiding candy from your parents and sneaking pieces one at a time because that way it doesn’t count, or refusing to go to a sleepover because someone might see you changing—is actually normal.

Everyone at AOS is familiar with the fear of walking, because of the way your thighs

chafe, sometimes until they bleed. And the panic you feel on an airplane, wondering whether you’ll get the seatbelt done up this time, and the misery of having people talk about you like you aren’t even human. And you did try to diet, your mom bought those low-carb bars, but your sister, who’s, like, a stick, insists on having Doritos in the house and then you’d look in the mirror and get depressed and eat them, plus anything else in the kitchen that wasn’t nailed down.

Being around people who actually understand is awesome. So is swimming again—here, who cares what you look like in a bathing suit? (Especially since some people look way worse.) You can play softball and, okay, maybe you can’t make it to

first base before the ball does, but still everyone’s yelling encouragement, not Look atfatass!, and it turns out you’re a pretty good outfielder. At group, you say you’re working your program fine, thank you, then someone goes, “Cut the crap, I saw you eat three bowls of cottage cheese at lunch,” and sure, it pisses you off, but then you realize the only person that cottage cheese is hurting is you.

Actually having a peer group, rather than two fellow geeks whose chief attraction is that they tolerate your presence, is likely the most important ingredient of AOS’s success. In this abnormal setting, The Fat Kid finally gets to feel normal.

^ H he academics here are like an

® I ® old car: nothing special, but you get where you need to go,” Jesse announces one day at lunch. Classrooms are less than modern— the desks are too small for some students, there’s only one overhead projector in the entire school, air conditioning and heating are both erratic—and while students, even the malcontents, praise the dedication of the teaching staff, they are underpaid and overburdened by the demands of teaching classes that include kids who range in age from 12 to 19, many of whom were doing poorly in the real world.

The real world is a big topic at AOS.

One morning, trudging down the road in grey sweatpants as the sun rises over the fruit orchards surrounding the school, Jahcobie Cosom, 16, who has lost close to 200 lb. but still weighs more than 300, says, “You know you’re fat when they ask you to leave the allyou-can-eat buffet.”

“That happened to me too,” says his friend, a six-footer who’s lost 72 lb. and is within

striking distance of buff. “And once I snuck out at night and took my mom’s car to go to McDonald’s, which was considered auto theft because I didn’t have my licence yet. The cops are arresting me and I’m like, ‘Can I still get my double cheeseburgers, two McChickens and a large fries?’ ”

There’s a lot of talk about food at AOS, the way the cheese bubbles on a deep-dish pizza, the creaminess of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. These reminiscences tend to have the same elegiac tone you might hear at AA, minus the rueful, repentant commentary on hangovers and human wreckage.

“I think kids are much more complicated and the culture is much more permissive than it was even 10 years ago,” says Molly Carmel, AOS’s clinical director. “Cellphones, Internet, it’s such an instant gratification world, there’s no frustration tolerance.” No time, in other words, to stop to think about consequences, like how bad you’ll feel if you finish the whole box of cookies.

For some, weight seems to be the least of their problems; they talk about drinking, drugging, depression, vandalism, failing grades, their parents’ substance abuse issues and messy divorces. Many girls had been in the habit of cutting themselves; three confided they’d been raped, and eating a lot is a good way to get guys to leave you alone.

“A lot of kids come in here pretty dark,

pretty down. About a third are on psychotropic medications,” says Carmel, who adds that weight loss acts as a catalyst for other changes. “The other things get better as the kid loses weight.

Because what we’re providing is treatment.”

Many U.S. insurers agree, and cover a portion of the cost. Even so, AOS is incredibly expensive: one-third of the families take loans to pay for it, and some kids, like Jahcobie, are on full scholarships, sponsored by chari-

LOREN CHILDRESS, TOTAL WEIGHT LOSS: 63 LB.

ties, pharmaceutical companies or media outlets like Extreme Makeover that film the transformation.

Obesity is far more prevalent among lower socio-economic groups, and Ryan Craig wants to start a non-profit to help even more kids, but he makes no apologies for the school’s tuition. It’s a business, after all, and not yet consistently profitable. “This program would never happen if you waited for some not-for-profit or government organization. Who’s going to invest that money? Just about every important medical innovation that’s come along in the past 50 years has been funded privately.”

In this case, by Aspen Education, a major player in the troubled teens industry. Aspen specializes in programs for kids who are so out of control that their parents must hire professionals to wrangle them out of bed in the middle of the night and convey them to the wilderness for a last-chance, boot-camp experience that runs about US$445 a day. Craig came to the company via the private equity firm Warburg Pincus, where he was a Manhattan-based vice-president; he invested US$15 million of their money in Aspen,

and in return got a board seat, which he used as a pulpit to preach about the market opportunity created by the obesity epidemic. When Aspen, which is headquartered in Cerritos, Calif., decided to take Craig’s advice and create its own program, he asked for the job. “The work of private equity investing is lucrative,” says Craig, who, post-Yale, had helped start an online education company. “But I missed rolling p my shirt sleeves and buildng.” He also missed his wife, a TV writer then working for ER;

he’d been commuting to L.A. every weekend.

So he moved out west and lined up an advisory board of big-name obesity experts and somewhere along the way went from viewing fat as a solid foundation for profit to deciding his mission in life is tackling adolescent obesity, and it would be a good idea to spend the first two semesters living in the dorms with the kids (his wife, who joined him on weekends, was somewhat less enthusiastic).

Only a handful of kids turned up on the first day, but they did so well that the school anointed itself “the most successful weight-loss program ever developed for teenagers.” Their poster boy is Terry Henry, who arrived weighing 591 lb., a number that could only be verified on a cattle scale, lost 350 lb. in 16 months, and has, to date, kept it off.

The average length of stay is eight to nine months, but AOS provides ongoing aftercare via Internet and phone, not least because Craig is determined to collect data to prove long-term weight loss. So far, 15 students have completed two semesters and been home for 10 months; on average, they were 100 per cent overweight upon arrival at AOS, 42 per cent overweight when they left, and

now, 10 months later, 41 per cent overweightmaintaining, in other words. Despite the small sample and relatively short period of time, “the results are impressive,” says Chanoine of UBC.

While Craig is busy planning a second school in North Carolina and operating summer camps in four locations, the school’s dayto-day operations are overseen by some other young, hard-driving Ivy Leaguers like his Yale buddy Phil Obbard, who gave up a career in Internet development to be the school’s executive director, and Molly Carmel, who used to weigh 325 lb. and now wears a size 10.

“I am the biggest proponent of maintaining a little anxiety,” says Carmel, 28, who has the slightly bossy charm of a talk-show host and is the subject of tearful Molly-changedmy-life tributes as well as tirades from kids who resist her in-your-face style. “Last week she flipped out because at weigh-in, half of us had gained weight or lost less than tw pounds. She goes, ‘Why are you guys ing up?’ I’m sorry? Generally adults talk like that,” said one girl. “It’s mean.”

Carmel shrugs. “We’re not they’re not going to be our friends, of their parents are. A lot of these structure in their lives before they

JESSE GUTH, TOTAL WEIGHT LOSS: 76 LB.

no idea about getting up in the morning or eating three meals or going to bed at a certain time. And though kids will fight you tooth and nail, they crave structure.”

Although no one at AOS will say so, and although it flies in the face of conventional wisdom as well as academic research, part of the school’s success must be connected to the fact that kids are cut off from their families. Parents are permitted to visit just once a month—but many live too far away—and for a weekend of workshops. Some are too indulgent, even sending care packages with candy. Others, says Craig, have “almost a Munchausen’s thing, where the child gets better and the parent is upset, because the parent has defined their identity based on the need to help their sick child.”

Although long-term success would seem to depend on a family’s willingness to, at the very least, make over the kitchen and toss the chips, “some are just not on board,” says Carmel. “People think recovery from alcohol is hard, recovery from drugs is hard, but that weight control should be easy, they shouldn’t have to change their houses or activities or behaviour. We try to help the kids plan around unsupportive families.”

“I just get the feeling sometimes that a bunch of rich people are shopping out their

kids and trying to get someone else to ‘fix’ them,” says one staffer, who questions whether AOS is the right place for some of its more oppositional wards. The school’s approach with hotheads and slackers is to try to show them their actions have unpleasant consequences, like being sent to live in a tent on an island adjacent to the main campus, where kids have to rough it, cook for themselves and make do with even fewer privileges. The Sierra Adventure Program, as it’s called, has been “so successful at accelerat-

ing behavioural change,” as Phil Obbard puts it, that all students who enter midterm—the school has rolling admissionsare now required to complete four weeks, minimum, at SAP.

For kids who still don’t get it, there’s always deportation to an Aspen wilderness program. “You have no rights, at night you have to give them all your clothes and shoes so you can’t run away. It’s pretty hard-core, the people are there for anything ranging from assault and battery to attempted murder. I was scared for the first week, yeah,” says Chris Abbatiello of Pennsylvania. He was Jesse’s

roommate, but frequently missing in action: he spent 38 days this spring at a wilderness program in North Carolina because “I was making poor choices,” and for most of the month of May, while torrential rains pounded and eventually swamped the island, slept in a musty tent at SAP.

“It’s really stupid. I’ve lost 120 lb., and my parents could get me a psychiatrist at home to do the emotional growth stuff, versus $5,800 a month,” he said one evening, swatting mosquitoes at the campsite. The next day, the five SAP kids sat glowering in a minivan in 85-degree heat, waiting to leave for a four-day camping trip/growth experience. Obbard, who is rail thin and generally mildmannered, bounded out to wish them well, but took one look at Chris’ face—it was his 17th birthday, and he was decidedly not a happy camper—and instead said, “Doesn’t it ever get old, Chris?” To which Chris replied wearily, “I hate this school.”

It was hard not to respect the guy’s sheer orneriness given the implacable nature of Aspen’s response to kids who don’t toe their line and his parents’ seeming willingness to bankroll “consequences” ad infinitum. In June, however, Chris finally got his way and went home for good.

Experts like Sharma and even Kirschenbaum, the architect of AOS’s program, decry the old idea that fat kids are lazy and greedy. The problem is biological, they say, and compassion is in order.

Nevertheless, the cure AOS is offering consists in large part of being a lot less lazy and a lot less gluttonous. And the least compassionate, it seems, are the newly thin. “They kind of forget that they used to be fat and no one liked them,” says Sammy Levy. “The skinnier, cuter guys forget all that.”

“This is why I hate teenagers,” agrees Lindsay Sauln, 17. “We’re not understanding.” By June, Jesse, who had dumped another girl and signed on for the summer session because “I don’t want to do this in a half-assed way,” was of the same mind. “I get picked on more here than I did at home, even about my weight. Pretty ironic, huh?” The problem, he thinks, is that “a lot of the kids have been picked on for so long and they finally have the opportunity to make other people feel bad.” There’s an alternate, more unsettling, explanation: “Thin isn’t the awesome, perfect life they thought it was going to be,” says Carmel.

“God, I’m so fat. So wide. I still feel like I weigh 202,” says Loren Childress, 15, who actually weighs 139, trying on her prom dress in front of a dorm room mirror surrounded by photos of models. “They’re pretty,” Sammy says quietly.

“You look great, too,” says Lindsey Tipograph, 15, and it’s true, but Loren and Sammy shake their heads, No. Lindsey, who is much further from her goal weight than they are, droops.

“You know what?” says Loren, adjusting the strap of her pink dress. “I’m going to another school when I get home. I just want to be around other people, where they don’t know I was ever heavy.”

Some kids won’t be able to hide the evidence: many have stretch marks, all over, and sloppy pouches of saggy skin. Getting rid of all that extra skin entails multiple surgeries, significant scarring and costs about $20,000, says Dr. Achilleas Thoma, program director of plastic surgery at McMaster University. He isn’t keen to operate on adolescents, because they haven’t proved they have kept the weight off, though he makes an exception for boys who require, in effect, breast lifts.

If AOS is a last resort, in Canada, “There’s no first resort,” says Sharma. “The average cab driver knows more about obesity than your family doctor.”

And there often aren’t the resources to deliver the help that’s required, says Dr. Michael Falk, an adolescent medicine specialist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “The focus now is research and prevention, which is great, but what’s out there for the morbidly obese inner-city 16-year-old with insulin resistance? Not a whole lot.” There simply aren’t enough programs like the one at Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, where overweight kids and their families can get comprehensive services.

But whether, even with the intensive help available at AOS, kids can make permanent changes in their lives, remains to be seen. “I see them go home for their ‘off-campus challenges’ and see the results: more than 50 per cent gain weight, some as much as 10 lb. in five days,” says one AOS staff member. One kid went home for a visit and scarfed 72 pieces of pizza.

Nevertheless, this is likely the best nonsurgical intervention money can buy, though in the end, regardless of how much parents spend and how many millions Aspen has at play, it will all come down to whether kids like Jesse can just say no to pizza for the rest of their lives.

Daily exercise and a radically low-fat diet will not be easy to sustain, nor will daily selfmonitoring in a food journal, which is linked to long-term success. But Jesse, who has lost 76 lb. and is now able to run up a flight of stairs without panting, is planning to continue losing weight when he leaves AOS at the end of the month. Despite sticking with a program few of his never-fat peers could tolerate for a week, he never really thought of himself as a conquering hero until he came back to Toronto to see his family for a few days last month. Then he went shopping at Roots, where, for the first time, everything fit, and dropped by his old school, where one girl who’d never been that friendly before squealed, “Jesse, you’re f—king sexy!” He went right home and promised his mom he’d never shop in the husky section again. M

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