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Battle Of The Bulge Moves To Boarding School Dining Rooms, Workplace Cafeterias

Graeme Colman - 10/03/06

The battle against New Zealand's growing obesity epidemic is moving into boarding school dining rooms and several workplace cafeterias.

One of the country's largest catering firms, Eurest, is rolling out its Taste Life programme which, when introduced in 1998 at over a hundred Australian mining sites, put an end to average annual 5 to 10kg weight gains by mine workers eating unhealthy foods at their staff cafeterias.

After the implementation of the programme, the mine workers made huge changes to their eating habits, turning Weet-Bix into one of their most preferred breakfast meals. Within a few months they were eating fewer meat pies and more multigrain bread, drinking significantly more trim milk and eating fewer sausage rolls.

The Taste Life programme, which ensures healthy choices are available on the menu and provides guidance on leading a healthy lifestyle, has just been introduced at one Auckland boarding school. Three other boarding schools will introduce the programme at the start of the next term.

Students can easily identify healthier choices, as foods are labelled with "eat most", "eat moderately" and "eat less", with a healthy meal being defined as one low in saturated fat, low in salt and a good source of fibre. Tabletalker cards displayed on dining room tables provide dietary advice on a range of topics, which change monthly, from sports nutrition to surviving exam time. Wall posters give other simple nutrition messages, such as how much fat and sugar is in some processed and fried foods and beverages.

Eurest's dietitian, Kristin Leaity, says she expects Taste Life to change the young people's eating habits and help fight the "horrifying" figures on the nation's weight problem:

31% of children, 48% of women, and 60% of men are now overweight or obese.

Leaity says being overweight has almost "become the norm" for New Zealand men and women. If the problem continues, 29% of adults will be obese by 2011. Already 1000 people a year are being killed by obesity-related diseases, like diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, some cancers, as well as suffering other conditions including gallstones and hypertension.

Treating diabetes and its complications alone reportedly costs an estimated $340 million a year and is predicted to rise to $1 billion by 2021.

Leaity says Eurest and its boarding school customers are not likely to face the total revolt, which confronted television chef Jamie Oliver, when he banished all processed and fried foods at some UK schools.

"Taste Life focuses on moderation - not restriction. Our menus are carefully designed to provide a good balance of nutritious meals which meet healthy eating guidelines, without over-restricting choice," Leaity says. "By providing additional education on why people should choose the healthier options, Taste Life promotes positive behaviour change.

"Offering healthy food just isn't enough these days - people need to be educated on the best options and provided with a supportive environment to make appropriate food selections."

Will it work?

Leaity says the Australian mining case and other "sell out" commercial experiences prove it can.

Taste Life is also being introduced at workplace cafeterias served by Eurest, the latest in two North Island cafeterias of a major dairy company.

There, at least half the food carries special "Healthy Choice" labels for eat-in and takeaway foods, showing they meet healthy food guidelines.

For example, butter and margarine is replaced with other low-fat moist ingredients in sandwiches made from wholemeal, wholemeal grain or high-fibre white breads. Two thirds of the content is highly coloured salads. Other ingredients include lean protein sources, like chicken, fish, meat and egg.

Other changes to Taste Life-labelled foods being made in the kitchens, which customers may never notice: only low-fat dairy products, reduced fat cheeses (like cottage or ricotta) are being used, and salt and booster stocks with high sodium content are being limited.

Leaity says in workplace cafeterias, Eurest is finding the healthy foods, specially the colourful salad-filled ones, are selling out first.

"Men are especially interested. When I visit work sites they often ask me what they can eat to stay awake on shifts. They've been drinking coffee and the quick-fix drinks. All they need to do is eat regular meals and choose wholesome foods such as grainy breads, fruits and vegetables and lean protein, to achieve a steady energy supply."

Another plus of the healthy eating choice for students: Leaity says it will reduce stress and fatigue and provide steady energy during exams.

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