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One Town Gets Children to Live a Healthy Lifestyle

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The program never used the words "fat," "diet," or "weight loss" with the children. "Strong, powerful, and healthy. That's what the kids told us they want to be," says the study's principal investigator, Christina Economos, Ph.D., the Friedman School at Tufts University New Balance chair in childhood nutrition. "So those were the words we used and that parents can use, too, when they talk about healthy food and activity." Besides, this really isn't just about weight. "Exercise keeps bones and muscles strong and helps kids focus in school," she explains. "Nutrients like calcium, fiber, and all the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in fruit and vegetables protect against a wide range of diseases." Developing a strong, powerful, healthy sense of self could even discourage a child from drug and alcohol abuse in adolescence, research in teens suggests. And when a child reaches the teen years at a healthy weight, he's less likely to be overweight in adulthood, which in turn lowers his risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even some kinds of cancer as he gets older.

Shape Up Somerville's not-so-secret weapon: the three simple principles by which its kids now live.

  • Consume fewer fatty snacks and sugary soft drinks.
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.
  • Get more physical activity.

But the genius of the program lies in how the town got its kids to embrace the kinds of healthy behavior that most children wouldn't agree to even on Mother's Day. Read on for how you can make these transformations just as appealing and permanent at your house.

Step One: Jettison (Most of) the Junk

Supersweet soft drinks. Cookies. Greasy potato chips. Cupcakes at fund-raisers and class parties. School-day snacking in Somerville, as in many towns across America, meant sugar, saturated and trans fats, and oversize portions. "But we changed all that," says superintendent of schools Tony Pierantozzi. The new snack norm: baked chips on the older kids' à la carte menu; a small cookie or pudding as dessert only occasionally in the elementary schools. And the district scaled back the number of party days to limit kids' sugar intake.

The program also persuaded 21 local restaurants to offer healthier choices — low-fat milk, side dishes of fruits and vegetables, and smaller portions — and designated the participants as Shape Up Somerville-approved eateries. "Our favorite Chinese restaurant was on the list," says Somerville parent Susan Kamin, 48: "It's good to know you can get healthy takeout from a place where your family already likes to eat."

Taking a stand against the toxic food environment in which kids (and adults) live is crucial. "The empty calories in snack foods and soft drinks mount fast," Economos says. "There might be 300 calories in a large soda. But a 50-pound second grader uses just 30 calories when he walks a mile. Burning it all off is nearly impossible."

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