Westport Eat Fresh? Local Teens Eat Healthier Than Most Nationwide

It almost goes without saying: America has a love affair with fast food.

With an annual business revenue of $110 billion, with 160,000 fast food restaurants across the country, with one in every four Americans served daily at a fast food chain, our fixation with fat-filled food has contributed in making over one-third of the country obese.

And yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Connecticut has the second-lowest obesity rate of all 50 states.

How and why do Westporter teenagers manage to stay fit and healthy, while a large portion of the country falls in the fast food franchise’s trip?

Karen Laramie, a certified clinical nutritionist in Westport, believes Westporters are healthy because they are educated. “From an early age, children are taught in health class and by their parents the importance of nutrition,” Laramie said. “This helps with future food choice making.”

This education begins in the Westport school system. According to Dave Gusitsch, K-12 Physical Education and Health Curriculum Coordinator, health class begins at the elementary level and becomes a regular occurrence in middle school and throughout high school.

“The goal is to educate students to make good choices on a day to day basis,” Gusitsch said.

This education is evidently not lost on students. Katie Smith ’14, for example, is a student who strives to be healthy and believes the habits she has learned in school have been engrained in her.

“As early as I can remember, P.E. and health classes at school have stressed the importance of eating healthy and exercising. Personally, I was brought up eating a ton of fruits and vegetables, so healthy food became normal for me,” Smith said.

Fitness trainer Jimmy Coscina, owner of FitJim in Westport, has another hypothesis for why Westport teenagers live a healthy lifestyle: parents. He believes Westport parents influence their children, enabling them to afford personal training and gym memberships, not to mention Staples’ top-notch athletic program.

“Kids learn from their parents’ habits and have plenty of exercise opportunities,” Coscina said.

Sherri Raifaisen, a Westport mother who attests to Coscina’s theory, has four daughters who have either graduated from or are currently at Staples. She believes she’s similar to other Westport parents who have instilled healthy values in their kids and also believes firmly in the phrase “everything in moderation.”

“That’s why I have a pantry full of snacks. I try to encourage my kids to eat healthy, but you shouldn’t deprive yourself,” Raifaisen said.

Varsity soccer player Jack Scott ’14, who said he indulges occasionally much like Raifaien recommends, thinks his diet should ultimately support his passion. “I eat fast food every now and then, but I know eating it too often is a poor decision, it’ll only hurt my health and my athletic ability.”

Parents act not only as insight, but also as means of something else very important: money.

A 2004 Time Magazine article about the relationship between economics and health reports that one in four adults below the poverty level is obese, compared with one in six in households with an income of $67,000 or more. The article notes that children from less-wealthy families face an even greater challenge in fighting obesity because the schools many of them attend are more likely to make budget cuts on physical-education classes.

Westport is an affluent area where healthy eating is a feasible, affordable option, according to Sloane Cooper ’15: “Westport teens eat healthier because we are able to buy more organic foods which costs more money but are healthier for you,” said Cooper.

A study by Dr. David Ludwig from Boston Children’s Hospital found that after surveying 6,212 children and teens, those who ate fast food consumed significantly higher amounts of saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar, and calories per gram of food compared to those who did not. They also had less fiber, milk, fruit, and vegetables in their diets.

Health teacher Kelly Garrity supports Ludwig’s study by explaining the negative impact of fast food.“Some of the negative effects of fast food can include headaches due to nitrates in the processed food,” Garrity said. “With the high levels of sugar and fat in most fast foods we often feel a spike of energy which fades quickly leaving us feeling not so good and even craving more unhealthy food.”

Westport can afford to be thin and healthy. Extensive nutrition units in health classes, a comprehensive athletic program including 74 teams, and influential parents all collectively contribute to making Westport an environment where teens can find a balance between diet and fitness. At the end of the day, however, the occasional order of McDonald’s fries may be just nearly impossible for any hungry teenager to resist.