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Ambitious Best Food FITS! program to combat obesity in San Marcos

Posted by Jayme Blaschke
University News Service
July 15, 2010

The obesity crisis in the United State is a growing problem that's defied efforts to control Americans' growing waistbands, but an innovative initiative from the Nutrition and Foods program in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Texas State University-San Marcos may offer a new strategy in the ongoing battle.

Supported by a $150,000 grant from the Texas Department of State Health Services, Best Food for Families, Infants and Toddlers! (Best Food FITS!) will attempt a community-wide intervention designed to influence eating habits from an early age.

"We're approaching all of the restaurants in the San Marcos community and asking if they will offer a children's menu for infants and toddlers that includes fruits and vegetables," said Sylvia Crixell, Ph.D., R.D., who, along with BJ Friedman, Ph.D., R.D., and Jesse Rogers, is overseeing the project. "This will be a positive environmental change for people in San Marcos. The goal is to make it easier for parents to provide their children meals with more fruits and vegetables and fewer sugar-sweetened beverages. Drinking too many sodas and juices, including fake fruit juices, provides too many liquid calories. These calories fail to make people feel ‘full’, so they ultimately consume too many calories.

"There's a national obesity crisis affecting U.S. adults, but a bigger problem, in my opinion, is pediatric obesity, because when kids are overweight they are more likely to develop chronic diseases as children and also become overweight adults," she said. "It's a serious problem. Children in this country don't eat well, starting from infancy. They eat too many French fries and drink too many sodas and often don't eat vegetables."

Such a far-reaching approach has never been attempted before, but Crixell said the university is ready to work with restaurants to help them be at the forefront of change. Dietitians on staff will work with restaurants to come up with healthy offerings that are flavorful and appealing to children, while focusing on utilizing offerings already on the menu to reduce any burden on the restaurant.

"We hope to understand the barriers faced by restaurants and will make every effort to help them make these positive changes. For some restaurants, it will be easier for them to comply than it will be for others, and we're aware of that," Crixell said. "Community changes are more important than any other kind of intervention, because they change the whole environment. Our current environment is ‘obesogenic’, contributing to the problem; we hope to make it less so."

Although the program is still in the early stages, response has been positive. Grins Restaurant, a long-time landmark in San Marcos, has already agreed to participate.

"We have been thinking about it because it can be a wonderful, wonderful thing," said Grins owner Paul Sutphen. "My idea is a vegetable plate, working with stuff we already have. That would entice families, and families are always price conscious.

"I do already serve kids' salads," he said. "That's where I'm trying to go now."

In addition to working with area restaurants, the Best Food FITS program has partnered with the San Marcos Public Housing Authority to modify a new adult education building to include four new teaching kitchens, Friedman said. Cooking classes will be led by students from the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences to teach healthy and flavorful ways of cooking fresh produce, and class participants will receive produce vouchers redeemable at the San Marcos Farmer's Market. Ultimately, the program hopes to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed by San Marcos residents and establish healthy eating habits in children that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

"While it seems like a big task to get the restaurants to change, you've got to start somewhere," Crixell said. "We're anticipating some restaurants will be very excited about it, hopefully more than we know. If we can establish healthy eating habits in infants and toddlers, maybe we have a chance to really attack the obesity problem."

For more information on the Best Food FITS! program, contact the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at (512) 245-2155.