Overall healthy living is a goal that should start early, and the Missoula City-County Health Department is using the Missoula Health Summit to push back against childhood obesity.
A good diet is an essential part of growing up healthy, said Rebecca Morley, program director of the Eat Smart project of the Health Department. Eat Smart will have a booth at the summit Saturday, Jan. 24, as part of its mission of helping Missoula residents make better eating choices and improving access to healthy food.
“We want to make the better choice an easy choice,” Morley said.
There are many different perspectives on what constitutes healthy eating, Morley said, but the current public health message is to decrease consumption of overly processed foods and eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Morley is also on the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce’s health committee.
Chief among Eat Smart’s goals is reducing childhood obesity through simple steps like decreasing the amount of sugary drinks kids consume. Morley said part of the problem might not be enough focus on making healthy choices.
“I feel like people need to make their own choices about food. It’s a very sensitive issue, but having the science and the truth behind it helps people,” she said.
The older we get, the harder it is to change ingrained habits about food, Morley said, which is why it’s important to focus on setting the right habits early on.
As part of Eat Smart’s appearance at the summit, Morley will give a talk in the University Center Theater about Smart Snacks in Schools, a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that went into effect last year to reduce the amount of sugar, fat and sodium in snacks sold on school campuses.
“Don’t rely just on children themselves, but the people who care for them. The parents, day care providers and teachers,” Morley said.
One effective method she has found for getting children to eat better is for parents to offer a variety of healthy choices, but still let the children decide which food to eat. Another part of the issue is that parents also have to set a good example with the food choices they make.
“It’s a really very difficult because kids see us as role models. The old adage of do what I say not what I do, does that really work that well?” Morley said.
Eating healthy is just one half of the childhood obesity issue, said Lisa Beczkiewicz, the coordinator for Let’s Move!, also a part of the Health Department. The organization is dedicated to reducing obesity by creating and supporting projects that promote physical activity.
“If you want them to have a healthy, active lifestyle, you need to teach them what a healthy, active lifestyle is,” Beczkiewicz said.
A key component of Let’s Move! is working with schools, where Beczkiewicz said children spend most of their time, to learn how much activity they get and increase that time to the recommended 50 to 60 a day.
“That can be through active transportation, access to physical activity, active recess and in-class physical activity.” Beczkiewicz said.
She said younger kids are easier to motivate to get active, but as they get older it becomes more difficult.
Part of the Let’s Move! goal is to reinforce making physical activity a priority throughout the community, not just in schools.
“Research shows that the more active kids are the better they do in school, period,” Beczkiewicz said.
Physical activity has also been linked to better brain development and helping with depression and some behavioral problems, she said.
In addition to schools, Let’s Move! also works with after-school programs like the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA and Flagship to ensure they are providing active options for kids.
The Let’s Move! booth at the summit will focus on interactive activities, in particular highlighting affordable options for families to get out and move together.
“I think it’s about making it fun, I think every parent wants what’s best for their kids,” Beczkiewicz said. “They can build in a pledge that this week we’re going to do one physical activity.”
She will also give a short talk in the UC Theater about the importance of physical activity and how to incorporate it into children's lives.
The Health Department will also have a booth at the summit beyond those for Eat Smart and Let’s Move!
Whitney Murphy, who runs the department’s cancer control programs, said the primary topic for the booth will be raising community awareness for environmental health hazards like radon.
“It is a problem in Missoula and a big factor for lung cancer. We’ll have test kits available for purchase,” she said.
The Health Department will also be handing out information about breast, cervical and colorectal cancers, and informing people about the right times to start getting preventive screenings, many of which are free with insurance.