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Generation XL: Part two

Almost nine million American children and teenagers weigh more than they should. That's three times as many, as a generation ago. The three young people in this story decided to share their struggle to lose weight with each other and with Dateline.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

In January, five months later, there will be a camp reunion. Everyone wants to look good for that. Justin and TJ have another incentive. They have been offered jobs here as counselors next summer -- if they don't gain back the pounds.

This is going to be the hard part because, researchers say, we live in an "obesogenic environment." From suburban sprawl, to drive-throughs, to school soda machines, to take-out, to the microwave, and TV, our surroundings conspire to make our children fat.

And these roommates face specific challenges. Justin is going home to a big house full of love — and food. And since TJ's mother, his anchor, has already left the state with her second husband, he has no home to return to.

Nanette struggles with mother away at work
Nanette, 30 pounds lighter, returns home brimming with motivation. She plans to stay active, exercise daily, try to avoid eating out, and get used to preparing her own meals — for school, and when home alone while her mother is at work. 

In October, two months after camp, Nanette still appears to be eating less. When the family eats together on weekends, it's not home cooking, but relatively healthy options. At a restaurant, she splits an order with her mother — camp lessons learned. But there's a huge problem built into Nanette's life. Her mother, a corporate manager, is away at work. A lot. 

Nancy Hemry: “I sometimes get there by six o'clock.”

Morrison: “That early? And it's often past dinner hour by the time you're able to get home.”

Nancy Hemry: “Yes.”

Nanette's mom drops her 15-year-old daughter off for food every morning en route to the office. There's just no time for breakfast at home. Already, Nanette's faces her first challenge of the day. She's trying, initially eating half a bagel — then, politely nudges our camera crew to leave. She eats more out of camera range.

Portion control remains elusive. At home, TV is back in her life, and with it, snacking. Her exercise plans have mostly fallen through. Just before the holidays, three months after camp, the Nanette and her mother visit the San Diego Children's Hospital for a checkup. They meet a nutrition specialist.

Mother tries not to get discouraged as daughter slips, once again. But slipping also means Nanette gets moody from time to time, and she's been avoiding school. And sometimes there's tension in the house, as mother and daughter try to cope. Doctors are trying various antidepressants to help Nanette.

Morrison: “Are her emotional issues because she is overweight? Or is she overweight because of the emotional issues?”

Nancy Hemry: “I think it's probably a combination of both.”

In the three months since she returned from camp, and two months before the camp's reunion, Nanette has not lost any weight. In fact, if anything, she gained a little bit.

Justin tries to avoid old temptations
Justin is a high school senior in Guthrie, Oklahoma. After camp he returns to his passion for music at church, and gigs and open mikes in Oklahoma City. But he combines that with renewed determination to keep those 50 pounds off and lose more. And now his family is making the commitment, too. No more the old way, which was to let the skinny kids eat anything and then try to control Justin.

So now everybody is eating healthy — or trying to. Justin's step-mother drives an extra hour to Oklahoma City to buy organic produce. It hasn't been easy, or cheap. But three months after camp, everyone seems on board.

Justin drives to school because it's too far to walk. But he avoids certain routes, like the fast food outlets lining the main road. During school recess, as our cameras becomes a distraction, he resorts to his staple humor. In the cafeteria, Justin eats a lean sandwich and a piece of fruit he brought from home, again, using humor as defense. Justin admits that having TV following him is a big incentive to losing weight.

Justin: “I don't want to look like an idiot in front of the world. I want to keep it off. Maybe someone will see this and say, that guy did it, or tried. That's what I'm going for.”

He also wants to return to camp as counselor this summer, and he has to keep the weight off for that. Still, no matter how dedicated, it's hard not to rely occasionally on the crutch of fast food.

Justin: “I think the best way to do it is not to eat out at all, but that's not realistic. This is Taco Mayo, my favorite eating place, that there is Domino's, that's Pizza Hut, that's Old Hick's Red BBQ, and there's Love's."

And, like Nanette, Justin's biggest foe is exercise. There's no physical education in school during the week, and on weekends, while his brothers play football in the backyard, he prefers playing the guitar in the basement. Yes, he got a membership to a gym, but no, he rarely goes more than once a week.

So three months after camp, how has he done, eating properly, but exercising little?

Justin: “At the end of camp I lost 50 pounds and right now I've gained back five.”

But Justin is concerned about the upcoming holidays. In the past that's when he slipped and ultimately gave up on his diet.  But this time, right after the holidays there's a camp reunion, and he doesn't want to gain weight before meeting his roommates, like TJ.

Concern grows when no word from TJ
When he said goodbye at the end of the summer, TJ was clearly in emotional turmoil.

TJ: “It's not the best time in my life right now you know. My mom's moving, but I'm almost 18 years old. I think it's time for me to grow up.”

From the moment camp ends, everyone begins looking forward to January's winter reunion, including Nanette and Justin.

But as the holidays approach, there is no sign of TJ. He has simply disappeared and no one seems to know where he is. Our phone calls are not returned, and when we try to track him down at school, we discover he's dropped out. Then, finally, at the end of November, we find him.

Most experts will tell you overweight children have no chance unless they're aided by a committed adult. But TJ'S mom has left him and the state of California. Now we learn that he’d been, essentially, on a months-long fast food binge. On Thursdays he eats tortas at a Mexican restaurant, because they're huge and on special, for $2.75.

Typically, he only gets up at two in the afternoon, starts eating by four, and continues until he figures out where home will be tonight. He has also started drinking. His mother sends him money from Arizona, but he's become increasingly dependent on the fridges and couches of friends and distant cousins. He is also back to eating one pound burgers. The closest thing to a home is his uncle's bachelor pad, where food options are not good.

TJ: “It’s bad because I’ll sit home, even if I’m not hungry, I’ll just – if you guys were not here I would just open it [refrigerator] and look at it… When my hands are empty, I know I’m not hungry. I know I’m not hungry. But I’ll go and do it again like a robot.”

Since he came back from camp, TJ hasn't weighed himself. He's afraid to. But it's obvious he's gained most of the weight back.

TJ: “I'm a little embarrassed because as much as I talked to the camera about how much I want to lose weight, how much I would take in and talk and I come back and didn't do s***. Excuse me, but you know, I'm pissed off with myself and that's not camp's fault.”

And so, he simply doesn't return the anxious calls of his camp counselors. He's ashamed and afraid he's forever lost the chance to be a counselor himself.

TJ: “I love Camp La Jolla. I would go there probably until I’m 40 if I could, you know, just to have fun.”

When we met two months later in January, TJ reported more bad news. He was in a fight, in a mall.

TJ: “I got charged with battery.”

Morrison: “The cops actually came?”

TJ: “Yeah, they came. Yeah, they arrested me.”

But this time, he says, was a wake up call.

TJ: “I moved in with my grandma and I signed up for college. Trying to get my life straight.”

Morrison: “It's tough, isn't it?”

TJ: “Yeah, it is tough.”

Morrison: “What's your weight situation?”

TJ: “I think I've gained like at least six— like 75 percent of my weight back.”

The very thing he wished — vowed — would not happen a third year in a row, happened. He was fat again, all the way, he says, struggling with the departure of his mom.

Morrison: “You know, we asked your mom to come here.”

TJ: “She— yeah, she declined.”

Morrison: “Did you call her too?”

TJ: “Yeah, I called, I told her to come, yeah.”

Morrison: “Do you think she's a little ashamed of the way things have gone?”

TJ: “Yeah, I think so.”

Going to the source: TJ's mother
There are simply too many questions unanswered. So we decide to go and meet TJ's mother on the Mexican border, in Arizona.

Good parenting, the experts keep telling us, is the best defense against childhood obesity. The choices you make early on about food and exercise will set the course of your child's life into adulthood. What choices were made for TJ? On January 17, 2004, we set out for Yuma, Arizona to find Trina Guerra, TJ's mom. What was she thinking when she left her boy, so clearly in need.

Natalina Guerra: “He had such difficulties in school, you know, with the harassing and stuff, that he clung to me because I was his protector. You know, I was... am his mom.” 

Morrison: “You were his everything.”

Natalina Guerra: “Yeah.”

Morrison: “And then his everything got married to somebody else and it was a whole different ball game?”

Natalina Guerra: “Yeah.”

Trina says TJ and his step-dad never got along. She was caught in the middle of that, she says. So this summer she decided it would be best to move with her husband and leave TJ behind.

Natalina Guerra: “He's a great kid and I know he'll do good. He just has to find himself and I can't find that for him.”

Morrison: “Even if he feels abandoned?”

Natalina Guerra: “Oh, don't say that.”

From so far away she hears that her son has gone back to the only way he learned how to cope, binging for comfort and now also drinking.”

Natalina Guerra: “I don't know if I made good decisions in life, but I'm human.”

Morrison: “I can see that you're pretty sad. Is TJ's problem his fault? Your fault?”

Natalina Guerra: “Well I think I take blame for it. You know, I think if I would have done the carrots and the vegetables and teach him different eating habits.”

She loves TJ very much, she says. But there isn't a thing she can do to change what happened years ago, when she and that little boy looked to food to ease their pain.

Morrison: “Any advice for anybody? Based on your experiences?”

Natalina Guerra: “Get some help. If you think that you're losing control and you see your kids gaining weight, get help early, not later.”

And in that, Trina is right. Good habits need to start early. No one knows that better than our teens, on the brink of adulthood, trying again and again and again to lose weight. 

January: Camp reunion
Since we first met her, Nanette lost 30 pounds over the summer, but her determination to lose more slowly eroded under the small daily realities and pressures of life at home.

Morrison: “It was tough for a while, this past fall?”

Nanette: “Yeah. It was hard for me to concentrate because my emotions have been, like, going all crazy I guess.”

Morrison: “It's a tough time.”

Nanette: “Yeah. But now it's easier for me to concentrate, I guess.”

One reason for improvement is that doctors have found the right antidepressant for Nanette.

Nanette: “It helps me get through the day without getting my mood swings, or, like, getting really sad or whatever. “

Her mom isn't giving up. She is looking into getting Nanette a personal trainer to come to the house and help her with exercise.

Morrison: “Will you be overweight the rest of your life?”

Nanette: “I don't think so.”

Morrison: “You're optimistic?”

Nanette: “I'm, yeah. I'm very optimistic about it.”

Morrison: “What if it doesn't work?”

Nanette: “That would suck.” [laughter]

When we last met Justin, he was worried about the upcoming holidays, that if he slipped, the camp might rescind its offer to invite him back as a counselor. How did he do?

Justin: “Well I've gained about 10 pounds over the holidays and ever since I got back from camp.”

He's still ahead, having lost 50 pounds over the summer and back on program, he promises. But will that be enough to win the coveted invitation?

Morrison: “You said to us one time earlier that you'd like to be known as the guy who succeeded. As the guy who made it. Are you that guy?”

Justin: “I'm that guy, I mean I've come a long ways. I mean the weight I've lost and put on and lost and put on. But you know, I'm getting to the point where I'm not going to do that anymore. You know? I know how to fix it now.”

Then, at the reunion he finds out that he will be officially invited back as counselor next summer. The news is a rush.  He tells us he's determined to lose 30 more pounds by June. 

And what about his former roommate, TJ? He surprised them all by showing up to the reunion. Heavier, yes. but now, perhaps, with a new weapon on his side: a sudden burst of maturity. And having come to the reunion, he discovers its never too late for redemption. Camp leaders tell him that if he turns his life around, he can still come back as a counselor.

Morrison: “What's the lesson of that? Because you fell off the wagon big time. You went AWOL. You were, for a while, a failure. And yet they still want you. What does that mean?”

TJ: “Yeah. No matter how hard it is for you, if you try your hardest eventually you can do it.”

Morrison: “Do you think you're there?”

TJ: “I'm trying to get there. I'm not there yet. But, when I get there I'll call you guys.”

Ahead of them is the awful fact with which they are far too familiar, the sad truth that very few people succeed. This is what 100 percent preventable, but almost 100 percent incurable looks like, in real life. And still, for all that, they are absolutely determined to battle that obesogenic environment of ours and win. Next summer they'll be back, three teenagers, fighting the fallout of America's harvest of plenty.