Together they fight obesity


The kids of Somerville, a town 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.

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.

About a third or 25 million US children and teenagers weigh over the healthy weight for their age, 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 didn’t take long to convince Mayor Joseph Curtatone. When the programme began more than 40 percent of the children in Somerville already were classified as overweight or were at risk. 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. The school also began teaching children how to eat nutritious and good-tasting food. 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.