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Health & Parenting

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School Programs Help Kids Eat Right

Repeated Messages Teach Kids to Change Eating, Exercise Habits
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

In the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., school system, seventh graders in 16 schools who participated in a program aimed at getting them to eat more fruits and vegetables -- and eat food that had less fat -- actually changed their eating habits, reports Amanda S. Birnbaum, PhD, MPH, an epidemiologist with the University of Minnesota.

What worked? Fruit-and-veggie tasting sessions, tips in preparing healthy snacks, sessions to help kids look for fat in popular foods such as pizza, chips, and fast food. Also, student-elected "peer leaders" helped conduct the sessions. And small cash incentives -- $10 coupons -- were sent home to encourage parents to serve healthier food for dinner.

In the end, the peer leaders reported eating nearly a full extra serving of fruits and veggies daily. The other students reported almost a 1/2-serving daily increase.

However, kids who participated in a trimmed-down version of the nutrition program -- one that encouraged them to choose healthy foods in the lunchroom -- didn't make as much progress.

In the El Paso elementary school system, a three-year physical education/nutrition program had similar results -- though not as dramatic, says study author Edward M. Heath, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation at Utah State University.

In third, fourth, and fifth grades across the school district, PE programs were beefed up to include more moderate and vigorous activity. Also, cafeteria managers were challenged to cut the fat and sodium from breakfast and lunch meals.

After one year, all schools showed significant improvements in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Many schools also showed reductions in fat in school breakfasts and lunches -- although not all schools made changes.

"Despite the challenges, it appears that there is a particular need for nutrition intervention for students in the middle grades, and with support, they are able to make healthful changes in their eating behavior," says Birnbaum in a news release.

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