August 24, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 2
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BestBites provides healthy options for Hub restaurants

Serghino René

Unfortunately, eating healthy is not a priority for most Americans. Obesity is now recognized as one of the greatest public health challenges facing more than 65 percent of Americans.

In response to the growing obesity problem in Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino, the Boston Public Health Commission and several area restaurants recently kicked off the Boston BestBites program.

Launched at the Haley House Bakery Café in Dudley Square, BestBites is a free program designed to encourage area restaurants to add or highlight healthier menu options as a means of fighting obesity.

In turn, participating restaurants will receive a sticker that will be identifiable to consumers seeking a healthy meal.

“This is something I think more restaurants need to do,” said Menino. “We have a wonderful opportunity to educate people of all ages and education is the first and most important step in curbing poor eating habits.”

According to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, more than 40 percent of money dedicated to food is spent on meals eaten outside of the home. Another study, compiled by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has shown that consumers consistently underestimate calories, especially when portions are larger.

Some of the highest percentages of obesity can be found in Boston’s communities of color. About 48 percent of Boston residents are overweight or obese and 63 percent of black Bostonians fall under that category, according to city health statistics.

In Roxbury, for example, 56 percent of the residents are obese or overweight. In Mattapan, the number is 63 percent, North Dorchester 63 percent and South Dorchester 56 percent.

Boston is not alone. According to new research that leaves little room for denial that a few extra pounds is harmful, baby boomers who were even just a tad pudgy were more likely to die prematurely than those who were at a healthy weight, U.S. researchers reported Tuesday.

While obesity has been known to contribute to early death, the link between being overweight and dying prematurely has been controversial. Some experts have argued that a few extra pounds does no harm.

“The cumulative evidence is now even stronger,” said Dr. Michael Thun, chief epidemiologist of the American Cancer Society, who had no role in the research. “Being overweight does increase health risks. It’s not simply a cosmetic or social problem.”

The BestBites program has arrived just in time. Here’s how it works:

Restaurants sign up for one or more menu items that they believe qualify for the program. Nutritionists from Brigham and Woman’s Hospital then analyze the dish for calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium content.

If the menu item falls outside of the criteria, nutritionists from the Boston Public Health Commission intervene and work with restaurant owners and chefs to make healthy modifications to the recipe.

That’s exactly what happened to Haley House Executive Chef Didi Emmons when her cornbread was examined prior to participating in the program. Nutritionists concluded that the recipe was high in saturated fat and that she wouldn’t qualify if the recipe weren’t tweaked to meet requirements.

“I substituted the sour cream with buttermilk,” said Emmons. “Since the ingredients were organic, it didn’t change the taste one bit.”

Emmons was clear about not turning Haley House into a health food restaurant. “It’s a place to come eat wholesome food with a reduced threat to your health,” she said.

Nutritionists suggest that appetizers should be 150 total calories or less, entrées 650 total calories or less and desert 200 total calories or less.

Boston Health Commission Dietician and General Program Manager Kathy Cunningham calls the program a “win-win” situation for consumers and restaurants.

“Community residents know we need change and restaurants want to change,” said Cunningham. “This is a way to make it happen.”

The Haley House was one of the initial 12 restaurants to enter the program. Other restaurants include African Cuisine in Hyde Park, Café 1010 in Roxbury, Centre Street Café in Jamaica Plain, Chef Lee’s Restaurant in Dorchester, City Fresh Foods in Dorchester, Flames Restaurant in Roxbury and Mattapan, Merengue Restaurant in Roxbury, Poppa B’s Restaurant in Dorchester, Salsa Mexican Grill in South Boston, Solstice Café in Roxbury Crossing and Victoria’s Diner in Boston.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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