Nu­tri­tion pro­gram tames the Cookie Mon­ster

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - MAR­I­LYNN MAR­CHIONE

Bert and Ernie jump rope and munch ap­ples and car­rots, and Cookie Mon­ster has his name­sake treat once a week, not ev­ery day. Can a Mup­pets mini-makeover im­prove kids’ health, too?

A three-year ex­per­i­ment in South Amer­ica sug­gests it can. Now, the Se­same Street project is com­ing to the United States.

Al­ready, a test run in a New York City preschool has seen re­sults: Four-year-old Jah­me­ice Strow­der got her mom to make cau­li­flower for the first time in her life. A class­mate, Bryson Payne, bugged his dad for a ba­nana ev­ery morn­ing and more sal­ads. A par­ent brought home a loaf of bread in­stead of Dori­tos.

“What we cre­ated, I be­lieve, is a cul­ture” of healthy eat­ing to fight a “toxic en­vi­ron­ment” of junk food and too lit­tle ex­er­cise, said Valentin Fuster, a car­di­ol­o­gist at New York’s Mount Si­nai Hos­pi­tal.

Six years ago, he started work­ing with Se­same Workshop, producers of tele­vi­sion’s Se­same Street, on a project aimed at three-to-five-year-olds. “At that age they pay at­ten­tion to ev­ery­thing,” and habits can be changed, he said.

The need is clear: A third of U.S. chil­dren and teens are obese or over­weight. A Sta­tis­tics Canada study from 2009-11 found sim­i­lar num­bers: nearly a third of Cana­di­ans aged five to 17 were con­sid­ered over­weight or obese, ac­cord­ing to World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion stan­dards.

Many kids don’t get enough ex­er­cise, and a re­cent study found kids’ fit­ness has de­clined world­wide.

They’re at high risk for heart and other prob­lems later in life.

“The fo­cus is younger and younger” to try to pre­vent this, said Stephen Daniels, a Univer­sity of Colorado pe­di­a­tri­cian and a spokesman for the Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion. The group’s an­nual con­fer­ence in Novem­ber fea­tured Fuster’s ex­per­i­ment as one of the year’s top achieve­ments in heart disease preven­tion.

For Se­same Street, the project of­fered a chance to im­prove the lives of young view­ers and give a makeover to cer­tain Mup­pets.

“While Cookie Mon­ster is an en­gag­ing fig­ure, we felt there was an op­por­tu­nity there to re­ally model healthy eat­ing,” said Jorge Bax­ter, re­gional di­rec­tor for Latin Amer­ica for Se­same Workshop.

The new mes­sage is cer­tain things like cook­ies are “some­thing you can eat some­times, but there are some foods that you can eat all the time,” like veg­eta­bles, Bax­ter said. The healthy mes­sages have been grad­u­ally in­cor­po­rated into the tele­vi­sion show.

It launched in Colombia be­cause U.S. schools that Fuster ap­proached were re­luc­tant, but a wealthy fam­ily’s foun­da­tion was will­ing to spon­sor the ex­per­i­ment in Bo­gota. It in­volved 1,216 chil­dren and 928 par­ents from 14 preschools. Some were given the pro­gram and oth­ers served as a com­par­i­son group.

Kids had train­ing on healthy habits and how the body works daily for five months us­ing Se­same Workshop-pro­duced videos, a board game (the “heart game”), songs, posters and ac­tiv­i­ties. Par­ents were in­volved through take-home as­sign­ments and work­shops fo­cused on good food and ex­er­cise.

Chil­dren’s weight and ex­er­cise habits were mea­sured at the start and 1 ½ and three years later. Al­though many moved or dropped out by the time the study ended, re­searchers doc­u­mented a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in knowl­edge, at­ti­tude and health habit scores. The pro­por­tion of chil­dren at a healthy weight in­creased from 62 per cent at the start to 75 per cent at three years for those in the pro­gram.

Seth Wenig/The As­so­ci­ated Press

Bryson Payne, who par­tic­i­pated in a pro­gram to ed­u­cate kids about nu­tri­tion, and his teacher Jac­qua­line Sanchez play with pre­tend food.

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