One Town Gets Children to Live a Healthy Lifestyle
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
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'
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."