Study: Healthy eating programs rarely succeed

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PANORAMA CITY, Calif. (AP) – The federal government will spend more than $1 billion this year on nutrition education – fresh carrot and celery snacks, videos of dancing fruit, hundreds of hours of lively lessons about how great you will feel if you eat well.

But an Associated Press review of scientific studies examining 57 such programs found mostly failure. Just four showed any real success in changing the way kids eat – or any promise as weapons against the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.

“Any person looking at the published literature about these programs would have to conclude that they are generally not working,” said Dr. Tom Baranowski, a pediatrics professor at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine who studies behavioral nutrition.

The results have been disappointing, to say the least:

•Last year a major federal pilot program offering free fruits and vegetables to school children showed fifth graders became less willing to eat them than they had been at the start. Apparently they didn’t like the taste.

•In Pennsylvania, researchers went so far as to give prizes to school children who ate fruits and vegetables. That worked while the prizes were offered, but when the researchers came back seven months later the kids had reverted to their original eating habits: soda and chips.

The studies don’t tell Leticia Jenkins anything she doesn’t know. She’s one of the bravest teachers in America – not because she gave her seventh and eighth graders 30 sharp knives to chop tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and limes for a lesson on salsa and nutrition, but because she understands the futility of what she is trying to do.

“Oh, it’s so hard, because at the end of the day sometimes I take a moment, I think gosh, I did all this and we still see them across the street picking up the doughnuts and the coffee drinks,” she said.

Nationally, obesity rates have nearly quintupled among 6- to 11-year-olds and tripled among teens and children ages 2 to 5 since the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The challenges to changing the way children eat are as numerous as the factors that have prompted the obesity epidemic in the first place.

The obstacles are daunting:

Parents: Experts agree that although most funding targets schools, parents have the greatest influence, even a biological influence, over what their children will eat. Zeitler says when children slim down, it’s because “their families get religion about this and figure out what needs to happen.”

But often, they don’t.

Poverty: Poorer kids are especially at risk, because unhealthy food is cheaper and more easily available than healthy food. Parents are often working, leaving children unsupervised to get their own snacks. Low-income neighborhoods have fewer good supermarkets with fresh produce.

Advertising: Children ages 8 to 12 see an average of 21 television ads each day for candy, snacks, cereal and fast food – more than 7,600 a year, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study. Not one of the 8,854 ads reviewed promoted fruits or vegetables.

Children may be the best sources to explain why lessons about nutrition don’t sink in.

“I think it’s because they like it so much, because like, I don’t know if you’ve seen the new hot Cheetos that are like puffs? Oh my God, they’re so good. Like everyone at the school has them and they’re so good,” said Ani Avanessian, 14, of Panorama City.

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