Preventive Medicine Column

Dr. David L. Katz

I am recently back from my most recent visit to Mindstream Academy, a boarding school that preferentially addresses the needs of middle and high-school students with severe obesity and related health problems.  I return amazed, and inspired, as I have on each prior occasion.

For this visit I was joined by Dr. James Galloway, a cardiologist in the preventive medicine department at Northwestern University and a former Assistant U.S. Surgeon General and  James Levine, MD, PhD, a research physician at the Mayo Clinic, focused on promoting physical activity, and controlling obesity, among other health promotion efforts.

During our stay of about a day and a half, we met with a group of roughly 25 current students twice.  I believe I can safely say that my colleagues were, as I was, blown away by these the kids.   For starters, more than a few of them had lost over 100 lbs in a semester or two at Mindstream.

More than 100lbs of weight loss is always an incredible feat. People who lose over 100lbs write best-selling books; they go on Oprah (or did) and the Dr. Oz Show; they become celebrities.  In this single cohort of students, there were four or five such cases in the same room.

Weight loss of that magnitude is generally seen only on reality TV shows, or in the aftermath of bariatric surgery.  There are pretty serious limitations to each of these, and Mindstream suffers none of them.

Reality TV, for one thing, is certainly not an option available to the masses.  It is not a public health solution.  Expanded into a network of franchises, Mindstream certainly could be.

But even more importantly, the methods of reality TV weight loss (and I say this as a veteran of the inaugural season of ‘Celebrity Fit Club’ on VH1) are suspect at best. Grueling workouts, drill-sergeant oversight, and severe dietary restrictions make for good drama; but none of these is sustainable in the real word.  These are gimmicks.

Mindstream uses no gimmicks.  The kids learn the fundamentals of healthful eating, and practice it with disciplined, and sensible moderation.  They learn how to fit fitness into real schedules, in the real world. They work in an organic garden, and learn where real food comes from- or should.  They learn to cook.  They learn a skill set that is tried, and true, and thorough- and totally suitable to the challenges of everyday life in the real world.

As for bariatric surgery, I don’t think we should have to cite the objections to relying on scalpels to fix what can be accomplished with more enlightened, empowered use of feet and forks.  We might merely note this: when you undergo surgery, you are unconscious.  Nobody learns very much under general anesthesia.

In contrast, school is all about learning, and Mindstream Academy is school.  It just happens to be school that teaches healthy living along with reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.

You can share what you learn.  There is no way to share the rerouting of your gastrointestinal tract.  The real story of Mindstream is about sharing.  It’s not about what the kids lose- it’s about what they find.

One after another of these young people talked about finding a community of understanding, a new family.  They reported finding confidence they never had, self-esteem they had lost.  They found self-respect, and purpose, and passion.  They are finding academic success as well, with most of the students shifting their grade point average up a full letter grade or more. They had found their way back to dreams, and a belief in the possibility of making them come true- partly because they had removed the obstacle of all those excess pounds, which had literally been weighing them down.  But they also had removed misconceptions, doubts, and fears.  In fact, at a bonfire ceremony the night before our second meeting, the kids had written notes about their fears and anxieties- and tossed them into the fire.

More than once, when a member of the group stalled, a friend reached out to take their fear from them- and toss it into the fire, stating with an eloquent, beautifully human gesture: you are not alone!

Every one of the kids spoke eagerly of wanting to share what they had found here.  With newfound capability and confidence, every one of these kids is eager to go out and pay it forward to peers and friends and families.  And in fact, that process is well under way.   A father of one of the girls at Mindstream, back at home, has lost over 40 lbs- thanks to his daughter’s enlightened guidance, and her commitment to sharing.

A concentrated dose of ‘all for one’ produced an incredible cohort of kids, renewed and inspired; every one of whom is now committed to lending the best help they can, for the good of all.




Dr. David L. Katz;