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Entire town goes on a diet

Somerville, a Boston suburb of 77,500 people, went on a diet, en masse to stave off the increasing problem of childhood obesity.

The town, seemingly plagued with the nation’s growing problem of overweight and sedentary youth, has only 3 percent of its land set aside for children to walk and play safely.  This, among other factors, encouraged a sedentary lifestyle for the town’s youth. 

Researchers from Tufts University chose Somerville to conduct the study that prompted this town-wide diet.  The researchers met with parents, teachers and school officials to get the message out that Somerville’s children were in danger of becoming obese.  They went on to explain why it was critical that kids have meals that are not high in fat and sugar and they told the parents that it was very important for the kids to be more active.

The study was funded with a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  In addition, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation contributed a grant to make roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists so that they could walk and bike to school.

After the study began, the kids walked into the school cafeteria and saw fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and other fruits…and were encouraged to eat as much as they wanted.  Further, the school cooks were coached to use fresh ingredients instead of frozen foods. They also substituted olive and canola oils for harmful hydrogenated oils and replaced fries and other fried foods with baked foods.

Then they started hitting the exercise angle.  Ninety teachers and coaches learned dance and soccer so that they could encourage children to be more active before, during and after school.

Fourth-grader Kayla Brown noticed a happy difference.  “I always got tired when I walked home,” she said, after giving up snacking on milk and cookies after school in favor of fruit or carrots and dip. “Since I have been eating more healthier foods at school, I just feel so excited, and I walk home and I never get tired.”

Even local businesses supported the effort. Twenty restaurants put healthier meals on their menus, including low-fat dairy products, smaller portions, and fruits and vegetables as side dishes.

It worked—the Tufts University experts found that the Somerville kids avoided gaining about a pound of extra body weight when they were compared with other 8-year-olds in two nearby suburbs.

How can you help your child avoid childhood obesity, and thus, an 80% chance of becoming an obese adult?

The first step is to teach your children about nutrition and how to make healthy eating choices.  This can start by providing them with healthy snacks.

  • Instead of high-sodium meals like “Lunchables”, choose low- calorie meal roll-ups
  • Instead of regular bologna or hot dogs, choose low-fat turkey
  • Instead of sugar-filled juices or sodas, choose water
  • Instead of soda, choose organic, low-fat milk or flavored rice milk
  • Instead of bags of cheese puffs, choose small bags of carrot and celery sticks

More tips can be found by visiting www.energyfirst.com.

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