To help children become conscious of nutrition and avoid calorie-counting, he developed the so-called "traffic light diet": green or GO, eat-as-much-as-you-want foods, such as vegetables; yellow or CAUTION, eat in moderate amounts, such as an apple, baked chicken or a bagel; and red or STOP, including doughnuts, fried chicken, lasagna, and ice cream. Participants are limited to four red foods per week.
At Stanford, staff members found the limit was too difficult for some children. "If we are too restrictive, children tend to sneak food, and we don't want that," Hammer said. He permits a more liberal two reds daily.
For Sam Berman, those reds are a constant battle. His dilemma is complicated by two thin younger brothers, Marc, 6, and Joel, 2, who are allowed to eat foods Sam cannot.
Although Stanford recommends not keeping sweets in the house, Sam's mother disagrees. She fears that if denied their snacks, the younger boys will resent their older brother.
Full family support, however, would appear to maximize results. When Robin Telerant, 11, of Westwood, joined the Body Shop in January, her parents cleared the kitchen of anything tantalizing.
"It is very boring. There's no more salami, cheese, cookies or chocolate," said Robin's father, Michael, with a laugh.
Robin is sensitive about revealing her weight. However, beginning the program in January at four feet tall, Robin lost four pounds in the initial 10-week period. Since then, while attending monthly follow-up meetings, she has dropped an additional four pounds.
Success however doesn't come to everyone. Robin's friend, who attended the Body Shop with her, has since regained the weight.
What most parents don't realize is that eating habits begin as soon as infants begin eating solid foods.
"During the first year, and certainly during the toddler stage, it is up to the parents to determine and control the food choices," said JoAnn Hattner, a registered dietitian at Stanford Medical Center and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Assn.
Epstein, who has been working with overweight children for many years, urges parents to be positive in trying to motivate youngsters.
"Never use scare tactics, such as 'You'll never get a boyfriend,' or 'You'll never make the basketball team,' " he advised.
Once children begin trimming down, many begin feeling better about themselves.
In Sam Berman's words, "I feel taller and I run better on the field. And people don't call me fat so much."