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Last Updated: Friday, 4 January 2008, 17:07 GMT
Teaching good habits to last a lifetime
By Fergus Walsh
Medical correspondent, BBC News


Evreux in Normandy is at the forefront of a French programme to prevent childhood obesity.

This quiet town has been running the scheme for three years.

It has now been adopted by 127 French towns, and has even spread to Spain.

The UK Government is also said to be interested in the scheme.

France is deeply worried about its children getting fat.

This image and food-conscious nation has seen a rise in both childhood and adult obesity.

Data on childhood obesity is sketchy, so it is difficult to know just how serious the problem is - but there is a consensus that it is now a major concern.

School focus

The programme is called EPODE and its main focus is on primary school children.

Dieticians visit the schools to run special lessons on food.

Myriam Antolini
Myriam Antolini is a cheese fan

I observed a special, once-a-year practical lesson when the children have breakfast together at school.

The aim of the exercise is to encourage children to eat something in the morning and to ensure it is a balanced meal.

So I was surprised to see a large plate of Camembert being handed round the seven-year-olds by dietician Myriam Antolini.

Full-fat cheese for breakfast - surely that's going too far?

"No, its French!" she laughed.

"We try to show the children they can drink milk in the morning which is traditional or eat a yogurt but they shouldn't forget cheese.

"It is rich in calcium and at breakfast it can replace another dairy product like milk."

Celebrating food

In that response there is a glimpse of how the French view food.

They don't see it as simply nutrition but something to savour, to celebrate.

That means variety and, when in Normandy, that involves local butter and cheese.

Breakfast sessions give children tips on a balanced diet

Of course moderation is another key message.

Lunch in the canteen was three courses, but the portions were small.

The children started with vegetable soup and bread, followed by pasta in sauce with vegetables, and then fruit.

From an early age the children are taught about food groups.

I watched a class of eight-year-olds trying to create balanced menus by using the different food groups, such as dairy, starch (bread, pasta rice, potatoes, cereals), fruit, vegetables and meat.

Different tastes

I also visited a nursery to see some two-year-olds having lunch.

Their starter was cold cooked asparagus, raw cauliflower and carrots - all with sauce dips.

The idea is to introduce different tastes to the children early on, to get their palates used to more bitter and acid foods.

The children loved it and it got me wondering how many two-year-olds in Britain would relish such food.

"We concentrate on prevention because we know that a child who is overweight at age 12 has 80% chance to be obese all their life," said Sandrine Raffin, director of the Epode programme.

"To gain a healthy lifestyle you need the whole of childhood to build good food habits and incorporate physical activity."

Nationally, big names in the food industry, like Nestlé help fund the EPODE programme, but they do so at arm's length.

In the large supermarket in Evreux there were signs promoting the programme.

Groups of children are invited in to learn about seasonal produce and how food is produced.

Early impact

So is EPODE making a difference? Well it is early days.

As part of the programme the children in Evreux have been weighed and measured every year since 2004.

The results show there has been a small but tangible reduction in the proportion of overweight children.

Set against a backdrop of dramatic increases in childhood and adult obesity, that is surely to be welcomed.

The scheme will need to run for several more years before one can be sure of its real impact.

Simply by charting the weight and height of children each year will be helpful as it will enable an accurate assessment of the level of obesity.

The UK Government will be announcing its obesity strategy at the end of January 2008 and there have already been hints that they are considering adopting elements of the French programme.

It is a recipe for preventing obesity, designed by an image-conscious and food-loving nation, which might just work in Britain.

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