By Laina Richards
Photography by ChiChi Ubiña
A DEVELOPING PASSION
Dr. Madhu Mathur, “Connecticut’s first certified Obesity Medicine Physician,” opened the Lifestyle Medicine Center in Stamford in May 2014. Since then, she has treated 600 patients or more. 74% of her patients have lost weight in just four visits, and 80% in three months. Though celebrating the first anniversary of this practice, her experience in this line of work began long before this past year.
Dr. Mathur traces her passion for treating childhood obesity back to her training as a medical student and resident in India, where she often dealt with malnutrition and thereby developed an understanding of how nutrition can affect health.
When she moved to the United States with her husband and daughter, she was confronted with a different nutritional issue: Increasing rates of childhood obesity in this country.
She explains, “It was something that really bothered me. I felt that, this is a developed country; they have all the tools. This is something that should not be happening.”
She explains how, in 2004, she started the prominent “obesity task force” called Kids’ Fans. Kids’ Fans still exists today, and there, “children get nutrition education and physical activity in twelve sessions.”
Dr. Mathur won the 2010 Connecticut’s Hospital Community Service Award from the Department of Public Health and the Connecticut Hospitals Association for her work with Kids’ Fans. She was also a YWCA of Greenwich 2011 BRAVA Award Honoree, “for her executive leadership, professional career achievements, and philanthropic contributions to her community.”
Dr. Mathur has another passion: Oil painting. Inspired simply by a love of color and the medium, she began painting while she was in medical school in India, and again in the Unites States about ten years ago. Her paintings often focus on travel, and she calls them her “travel diaries.” Her work has become more abstract over time.
A member of the Old Greenwich Arts Society, Dr. Mathur has been featured in their exhibitions and few years ago she held solo exhibition at Arcadia. Dr. Mathur has given proceeds from painting sales to The American Academy of Pediatrics and donated paintings to The India Cultural Center and the YWCA.
A WELL-EQUIPPED SPACE
Dr. Mathur recalls her initial encounter with childhood obesity: “I realized it was not a simple problem. It needed everybody in the child’s environment to be able to make a change.” Her private practice helps with weight loss, pre-diabetes, high cholesterol levels, and high triglyceride levels, all through lifestyle change instead of medication.
“When people are talking about obesity and they tell the parents that you just eat healthy and exercise. It doesn’t really give them the tools make the change,” she says. The Lifestyle Medicine Center has both a gym and a kitchen. “I’m giving [my patients] all the tools and helping them track their body composition,” she says.
Dr. Mathur says, “Both [the gym and the kitchen] are available for children to use. But more than that they are to give out a very strong message that these are the tools that we need to use. We need to change what we eat and how we eat, and we need to exercise.”
The core of the treatment focuses on behavior modification, behavior counseling, and dietary changes. She says, “They love to talk.” She is available until six thirty in the evening on weekdays and on Saturday mornings.
A COMFORTABLE SPACE
Dr. Mathur explains that one of her main motivations for building a private practice was to create a comfortable space for her patients. “I wanted to do this by myself where I have a safe environment for children. It’s friendly, it doesn’t seem like a doctor’s office. We are talking about a difficult subject so I want the environment to be really easy and fun.”
She has recently begun bringing her art and work together – hanging her artwork in her office. “It helps me set the tone of the office. It’s a little different from starchy ‘doctor’s office.’ When kids come, sometimes they’re a little apprehensive. When they see the setting, it helps them feel that it’s going to be a fun experience.”
She also believes that her love of painting can help her patients, saying, “I use it to influence children to say, ‘get up, stop watching so much TV, you can do some artwork.’ I can have a career, I can paint, and it also uplifts me.” She is spreading her love of painting while encouraging them to pursue active, creative hobbies.
APPROACH & TIPS
Dr. Mathur is adamant about avoiding sugary beverages for children. She explains, “They are not nutrient dense but they have high calories. So they promote weight gain without bringing satiety.”
She also works with children on their self-esteem. “This is one of my biggest things,” she says. “I ask children, ‘why are you here.’ […] It’s a little direct. It’s a little uncomfortable. But it opens the door, and, sometimes they tell me that they’re greedy or they’re being bullied in school and it’s nice to be able to put it on the table and talk about it. […] I want to take away the child’s feeling that there is something about them that is wrong.”
Dr. Mathur encourages children to make choices for themselves through “Motivational Interviewing.” She has many food props in her office, and explains, “I let children pick up the things that they are most familiar with. And they come and pick up their cereal boxes, their juice containers, and they read how much sugar it has.” She then asks, “Do you think this is right? What do you think about it?”
She says, “Then children feel that they have made the decision but I’m gently nudging them. Children understand a lot. They make the right decisions and they feel that it’s their decision – their project with me – and their parents are there to support them. That’s when they feel a sense of ownership and gently, we are able to make huge, huge differences.”
Additionally, Dr. Mathur incorporates mindfulness into her practice. Dr. Mathur says that she does not want the children to feel deprived. “If they really, really crave an ice cream, then they can have it. And that’s when I bring in the mindfulness.” She says the real problem is not the treat itself, but always wanting “large portions” of the treat.
First, she asks specifically how much a child would want of the treat. She says, “it’s very surprising. They’re very modest in what they want.” Treats become well thought-through, special, and, again, empowering.
Next, she asks the child to visualize eating. She says, “Children eat their food really fast. I often tell them to describe to me if they’ve ever seen a three- or four-year-old eat an ice cream. They don’t care if their cone is melting and is making a mess. You cannot get them to eat fast. And I tell them to take a lesson from how those little [children] are really mindful in enjoying the ice cream.” She even educates patients on the science of taste, giving them reasons to slow down.
Dr. Mathur says, smiling, “I have so many parents who have told me that I have changed their lives. That I have made a difference.” She pauses. “It’s really nice to hear that.”
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