What do Oprah Winfrey, “Good Morning America,” the BBC, New York Times, USA Today and Ladies Home Journal have in common? They have all interviewed Dr. Melinda Sothern about her breakthrough translational research on childhood obesity and her Trim Kids Program. The nationwide media interest keeps growing, with Sanjay Gupta, the Washington Post, Better Homes and Gardens, Parents Magazine, Nicholodeon, and Radio Disney all featuring Dr. Sothern and her book Trim Kids.
Trim Kids: The Proven Plan that has Helped Thousands of Children Achieve a Healthier Weight, is authored by Dr. Sothern, Heidi Schumacher and Dr. T. Kristian Von Almen, and continues to be the gold standard for kids and families, helping any child, any age, anywhere to reach a healthier weight.
The Trim Kids Program continues to be acknowledged and replicated. It is considered a research-tested intervention program by the National Cancer Institute and received the 2007 US Surgeon General Award for community dissemination into YMCA centers. This was only one of a long list of awards and citations, the most recent of which was the Oded Bar Or Award for Excellence in Pediatric Obesity Research, The Obesity Society, Pediatric Obesity Section, awarded October 25, 2009.
Dr. Melinda Sothern is tenured Professor in the LSU Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC) School of Public Health’s Behavioral and Community Health Science Program. She has worked diligently for decades to develop the program that successfully addresses childhood obesity and diabetes. The media attention may be astonishing, but it is definitely well deserved.
She has come to much of her wisdom about what children need for change through her own experiences. Melinda recalls her childhood as “A tomboy–climbing trees, throwing footballs, always outdoors. All that energy was a challenge to harness during school time,” she said. But, with the help of the good nuns in Houma, Louisiana, she learned to direct her boundless energy and focus on studies throughout the school year.
During summers, she found another outlet, swimming. She was a lifeguard by age 13, a teacher by 14, and a coach of competitive and synchronized swimming by 19. Convinced to major in physical education by her father, she engaged in an extended field experience, “Six years in the Virgin Islands,” she explained. “There were all of these kids on an island, and they didn’t know how to swim.”
She became founder, president and director of the St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Swimming Association. Her swimmers swam in island-wide championships in Puerto Rico, Granada and the Dominican Republic. Next she moved to St. Croix to become the Research and Training Assistant for the MALO Institute with exercise physiologist, Dr. Orjan Madson of Norway and Michael Lohberg of Germany. Their team of swimmers included gold medalists Peter Bergen and Michael Gross among other sports luminaries.
But it wasn’t the superstar athletes who captured Melinda’s heart. It was a group of students whom she met while working during the same period as Athletic, PE and Aquatic Director for Good Hope School in St. Croix.
It was then that Melinda found herself involved in helping her first group of overweight youngsters, developing ideas that were destined to evolve later into a program of national recognition.
While coaching the cheerleading team, several overweight girls tried out at Melinda’s invitation. “Not only didn’t they make the squad,” Melinda related, “people made fun of them – the kids, the judges, even the teachers.”
The next year, Melinda put all the girls into four teams, and arranged the groups so that the top team, the A team, were big sisters to the B team, and they were big sisters to the C team, and so on, 48 girls in all. “These girls were accepted by the group, got individual attention and were learning how to make meaningful change through exercise. They trimmed down, and it was great to see.”
In 1989 after Hurricane Hugo hit, destroying everything in the island, Melinda returned to Nicholls State University to finish her studies. Focused on her academic pursuits, she finished a B.S. in Arts and Sciences in 1990 at the University of New York Regents College and a M.Ed. in Exercise Physiology in 1991 at the University of New Orleans.
She had a “great job as Corporate Health and Fitness Director for Pan American Life Insurance Company,” when she was approached by Dr. Robert Suskind of LSUHSC Pediatrics. Asked if she would work with “overweight kids,” Dr. Sothern immediately took the position of Research Associate in Gastrointestinal Nutrition of the LSU School of Medicine. Becoming an Instructor the next year, she worked with that group until 1997.
“There were doctors from LSUHSC and Children’s Hospital working on the project along with dietitians and psychologists. But none of them were professionals in exercise or the physiology of movement,” she recalls.
“The study that was in place before I joined the team had kids walking two hours a day, trying to burn 500 calories a day – 80% of the participants left that first cohort. These kids weren’t lazy, they were sick.”
She introduced a progressive program of exercise involving 15 overweight children and their families. Beginning with chair aerobics, to help the children gradually build to achieve a healthy state, the groups’ exercise regimens were stratified by obesity level. Red was for severely obese; Yellow for obese; Green for overweight; and Blue for ideal. It took 12 to 24 weeks for the children to move to the next level. The goal for everyone was the Blue level, not unlike the A-Team in St. Croix.
“The nutritional component was initially more restrictive,” Melinda explained. “Low carbohydrate diets could put the students into ketosis, so we modified them to what is similar to the South Beach diet.” From that beginning, the “Trim Kids Pediatric Weight Management Program” would be born.
“In those early days, people just weren’t focused on obesity. Eventually there was an explosion of interest in obesity among children,” Dr. Sothern recalls. “We were leading the pack.”
Having completed her Ph.D. in 1997, Dr. Sothern was appointed Assistant Professor of Research and Director of the Section of Pediatric Obesity Clinical Research at the LSUHSC School of Medicine and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. She then moved her primary appointment to the Pennington Center, under the direction of Dr. Eric Ravussin, Director of the Health and Human Performance Division.
Senior researchers at Pennington “told me I was a researcher, but that I wouldn’t be a scientist until I had been awarded an NIH RO1 grant,” Dr. Sothern grins. “So, I got two of them.”
While working at the Pennington Center as the Director of the Prevention of Childhood Obesity Laboratory, Dr. Sothern joined Dr. Larry Weber with Tulane University as Co-Primary Investigator and interventionist in his Trial of Activity for Adolescent Girls Study with the NIH. She also continued her work as Director of the Pediatric Obesity Clinical Research Section at LSUHSC, splitting her time between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
During this time there was a huge demand for materials from childhood obesity programs. In response, Dr. Melinda Sothern, along with Heidi Schumacher and Dr. T. Kristian Von Almen began writing the text Trim Kids: The Proven Plan that has Helped Thousands of Children Achieve a Healthier Weight. The book came out in 2001, and amid glowing reviews, Trim Kids became the gold standard. “It isn’t a diet book,” she emphasized. “We instruct the reader to work with a nutritionist on a dietary plan that complements the program.”
In 2004 she was asked to come to LSUHSC School of Public Health. “I was delighted to get the call in 2004 from Terry [Dean Elizabeth T.H. Fontham] asking me to join the School of Public Health Faculty,” said Dr. Sothern.
Professor Sothern brings to the school the mentoring experience she has gained from her work as principal and co-principal investigator on 22 grants and contracts totaling well over $20 million. Perhaps as importantly, she brings the patience and insight she gained with her cheerleaders in St. Croix.
“I challenge my students by showing them what they can be in 20 years. I like to raise their curiosity, and give them pieces of the puzzle to work with,” she explained.
As the author of 34 manuscripts in peer reviewed journals, three books, and 28 chapters in texts and peer-reviewed journals, Dr. Melinda Sothern emphasizes thorough review of previous research. “My students begin by exploring the needs of the community and reviewing the literature thoroughly before thinking about an intervention,” she said. “This opens their eyes; they become aware and learn what experts have done in the area.”
“After they know a problem front, back and sideways, then they need to think out of the box – using the theories, but arriving at ideas of interventions that have never been done before.”
“Only then can they clearly define a solution, very specifically thinking about the means they will use to solve the problem, and how to monitor and evaluate an intervention.”
Dr. Melinda Sothern concludes with a smile, “I love teaching – watching the students’ faces when the light bulbs go off on top of their heads.”
For more information about Dr. Sothern’s extensive research, see her CV at: http://publichealth.lsuhsc.edu/faculty_cv/CV_Sothern.pdf