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Somerville, A Town Committed to Tackle Obesity Among Kids

Children in Somerville town in Massachusetts are losing in a way that's making other communities in the US take notice.

The kids of Somerville, a town of 80,000 outside Boston, have been taking part in a nutrition programme aimed at helping them learn healthy eating habits that stay with them throughout their lives. As a result the Somerville children on average weigh less than those in nearby towns, and as they learn to eat better, they improve their chances of maintaining a normal weight into adulthood.

It hasn't come without effort, but once the entire town decided to wage war on the cushions of fat developing on their children, the people of Somerville resolved to take on the task. While other towns across the US have started group weight-loss programmes, this is an experiment like no other because it's largely targeted at changing habits learned in childhood.

The project is called "Shape Up", and it began in 2003 under the direction of nutritionist Christina Economos of Tufts University. It encompasses everything from encouraging people to walk instead of drive to persuading restaurants to serve smaller portions.

Americans are becoming more and more aware of the growing number of overweight children and teenagers in the US. About a third or 25 million US children and teenagers weigh over the healthy weight for their age or just under it, according to government statistics.

Among adults, about two-thirds are overweight or simply obese, which increases their risk for illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

It was clear to Economos, mother of two children, that there was no point in forcing youngsters to go on a diet. Instead she set out to take small steps to change lifestyle in the town.

She looked at other societal developments that have had an impact on health - the anti-smoking movement in the US was an example - in the hope that these could be transferre d to the area of nutrition. The result was "Shape Up".

It didn't take long to convince Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who himself would like to get rid of a few pounds, that the programme would be worthwhile. He said he immediately saw the programme's potential.

When the programme began more than 40 percent of the children in Somerville already were classified as overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. The mayor reckoned that a programme that encouraged people to strengthen their bodies and eat healthy foods could only turn the town into a better place to live.

And so it began. The people running the programme aimed to spend the least possible amount of money. They made small changes like freshening up the paint that formed zebra-stripe crosswalks and positioning crossing guards at major intersections to make walking to school more appealing.

Information brochures were handed out, bicycle paths were built and the number of racks for parking bicycles was noticeably increased.

And to show its commitment, the town council decided to give its civil servants an incentive to work on their physical fitness. By going to the gym, they could receive a refund of the monthly membership fee.

In addition to offering smaller portions, about 20 restaurants in the town began including low-fat items on their menus. School lunches also became healthier through subtle changes that didn't drastically alter taste.

The cafeteria started serving hamburgers on whole-wheat buns, for example, and providing a lot of fruit for children to fill up on. The school also began teaching children how to eat nutritious and good-tasting food, and samples of different foods were regularly made available.

Parents also were drawn into the programme at meetings where they heard presentations about nutrition, at health bazaars complete with nutrition exhibits and at events such as community mini-m arathons.

The results seem modest, but are nevertheless meaningful.

After eight months the height and weight of nearly 400 first, second and third graders were measured and the data were compared with those of children the same age from two nearby towns.

On average the kids of Somerville gained about one pound less than the children in the other towns. Economos said it was reasonable to expect weight gain because the children are all growing rapidly.

And the programme continues to expand. The town council now has decided it could replace some of the city cars with bicycles.

"There has really been a mindset that has changed toward active living, eating smart, playing hard," Curtatone said.


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