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Monday Motivator: A healthy habit

Steve Hillman of Brainerd recently began eating more fruit and vegetables to improve his overall diet. He said the benefits followed quickly in losing weight and feeling better. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch

Steve Hillman of Brainerd pushed his cart through the produce aisles doing something apparently many men in Crow Wing County are not.

Hillman recently made a determined effort to add more fruits and vegetables to his eating habits. He added apples, bananas and pineapple to his cart during a recent shopping trip to Cub Foods in Brainerd.

Hillman said adding more fruits and vegetables actually has been pretty easy and noticeable benefits came quickly. He lost weight and felt better.

A Crow Wing Energized health survey found two of three adults are not getting the recommended five or more fruit and vegetable servings per day. The 2014 health survey found 40.6 percent of men either ate no fruit or vegetables or two servings per day. That's compared to 26.5 percent of women who also had such a small percentage of their daily diet in fruit and vegetables. Adults ages 45-54 were most likely at 41.5 percent, to eat zero to two servings of total fruits and vegetables daily.

Dave Baloga, a physical education teacher at Garfield and Lowell elementary schools in Brainerd, said he wasn't surprised at the survey results. The 33-year-old can use his own experience and those of his friends as anecdotal proof. He said look at the plates of men and women at any potluck to see the percentages in action.

Growing up, Baloga said they didn't have a lot of vegetables and when they did the offering was pretty basic helpings of peas or corn. He credits his wife with teaching him to be open to giving vegetables a try and trying different ways to prepare them. He tried kale and baked it.

"Actually it was good and I can't say I would have tried that before," he said. "We are not going to like everything and that's OK, but at least try it and include more."

The message of being open to trying fruit and vegetables is one Baloga takes to his third-grade students. He has the monumental task of trying to teach those third-graders about health and fitness in the 20 to 25 minutes he's given with them daily.

Healthy eating homework

This past year, Baloga asked his students to do homework by trying different fruits or vegetables. For seven weeks, the students kept track of their fruit, vegetable and water intake. First they created a baseline of what they were eating. Then they tried to add more fruits and vegetables to the mix. They researched the benefits of water.

For some students increasing their water or fruit and vegetable portions was a struggle. Others embraced it. They seemed to enjoy trying different things. Baloga asked them to have their parents try different preparation methods to see if that made a difference in how they liked the food.

Going into the lesson plan he wasn't sure what to expect and ended up getting more out of it than he anticipated. Parents told him they were happy to have another voice carrying the message they were telling their children about eating more fruits and vegetables.

"It was cool to hear some of their children were willing to try things because it was coming from me," Baloga said. "I do feel they were eating more because they were encouraged to do so. They probably, I would say on average, increased their vegetable serving by one to two overall."

Fruit was a little easier of a sell and students were typically already willing to partake. Their water intake also increased and students were asked to find two ways water benefits the body.

One suggestion Baloga received, which he plans to include, was to keep the change simple, thus easier to follow and make into a habit. Maybe rather than trying to increase fruits, vegetables and water all at once, focus on one for a week at a time.

"That was my whole goal to hope they make small changes in what they are doing," he said. "And to get them to think a little more and also to get their parents involved."

One question on the survey was for parents. It asked if they noticed any changes in the children with the effort to increase water, fruits and vegetables. Responses included just what Baloga was hoping to find - along with some surprises. The parents reported students were eating less junk food. Parents reported other benefits - children who slept better and were clearer in their thought processes.

Baloga was encouraged by the results.

"I'll continue to do things like this and do more with nutrition," Baloga said. But he noted the time constraints make it difficult. If they had even 30 minutes per day in the elementary school setting, he said that would make it less rushed. When a U.S. Tennis Association member came into the classroom for a lesson this spring, Baloga said they were amazed at the short timeline but as other things were added to the school day or sections of students added, physical education was shortened.

"When you only have 20 minutes it's a struggle," he said. "It's hard to do it all justice. You try the best you can with what you are given and we are going to do different things with nutrition. We need to have more phy-ed teachers willing to do it and I hope more will get on board."

Baloga plans to work with the University of Minnesota Extension, which offers six lessons on nutrition for students, to see how they may be able to work together with a goal of helping students develop better eating habits.

"We eat so much meat production we miss out on greens," Baloga said. "Overall as a nation we need to get better on vegetables."

Baloga said in particular vegetables are missing in a lot of American diets these days.

"The biggest thing is getting people to try different ones and try to get them into their diet regularly."

Coming next week: Tips on how to prepare fruit and vegetables and how to incorporate healthy elements into meals, even if it's a little bit at a time.

RENEE RICHARDSON, associate editor, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.

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