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Diets Modified in Montebello : The Cholesterol Alarm Sounds at School

March 16, 1989|JAMES M. GOMEZ | Times Staff Writer

Harumi Hatakeyama says she is rediscovering tradition.

"I've gone back to cooking Japanese food," she said as she cleaned a pile of iwashi , a fish similar to mackerel, and sliced tofu for her family's evening meal. Hatakeyama now prepares fish and vegetable dishes that her parents once routinely served, but that she had stopped putting on the table in favor of simpler meat and potatoes.

The Soffa and Guzman families, on the other hand, say they have found new alternatives to their favorite but less healthy traditional meals.

Larry and Esther Soffa now shun fatty lamb, homemade corned beef and rich pastries for skinned chicken. And Theresa Guzman has replaced her son's usual after-school snack of taquitos and nachos with fruit, oat bran muffins or cholesterol-free bread.

Alarming Facts

In each case, the families modified their diets for the sake of their children who attend La Merced Intermediate School. They were spurred by some alarming facts recently uncovered in a $170,000 health study being conducted by the Montebello Unified School District. The district's Health and Fitness Research Project--now entering its third and final year of testing at La Merced--has found, among other things, that:

About 80% of La Merced's students are overweight.

Of 426 students who volunteered for blood tests, 37% had seriously high serum cholesterol due to poor nutrition and lack of exercise.

Cholesterol, which clogs arteries and is a major cause of heart attacks and strokes, contributes to an estimated 650,000 American deaths each year, according to Cal Poly Pomona researcher Dr. Stan Bassin. Cardiovascular disease costs Americans an average of $50 billion in medical bills yearly, according to Bassin.

The findings have spurred several state lawmakers to call for legislation.

"Our children are virtual time bombs, medical conditions waiting to happen," Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier) said. Calderon and Assemblymen Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) and Charles W. Bader (R-Pomona) have introduced a three-bill package that is under review by the Assembly Education Committee.

Bill Calls for Study

First, a bill written by Calderon--whose district includes Montebello--would require the state university system to perform a health study in 10 public school districts.

A bill by Bader would require every elementary school to have a physical education specialist with extensive training in health and nutrition. Many school districts do not employ such an instructor in the lower grade levels.

Finally, a bill by Hayden would require cholesterol testing for all fifth-graders in the state. The average cost per child would be about $25, officials predict.

Montebello school officials suspected in 1985 that the general health of district students was not good. So they sought advice from a team of nutritionists from Cal Poly Pomona. La Merced students were chosen for study because of the school's ethnic diversity. About 72% are Latino, 15% are Asian and 13% are Caucasian. The students were tested in 1987 and 1988, and will be examined for a final time in May.

When Alan Hatakeyama, 11, was tested last year, for instance, he was found to have a blood cholesterol level of 223, said La Merced Vice Principal Rosina Spitzer. Claudia Soffa, 12, had a level of 286, and 11-year-old Keith Guzman's level was 230, Spitzer said.

Less Red Meat

Blood cholesterol above 200 is considered dangerous in adults, researcher Bassin said. Between 17% and 20% of the La Merced children who were tested had levels above 200, officials found.

"Maybe it's my fault, because I like to cook him tostaditos and flautas, " said Keith Guzman's grandmother, who lives with her daughter's family and does the cooking. She said she now prepares low-cholesterol meals. She buys cholesterol-free bread, margarine and other staples, and has cut back on serving red meat.

Claudia Soffa said she has acquired a taste for healthy foods since being told that her cholesterol was among the highest of any student tested.

"I like spaghetti and stuffed peppers," Claudia said. "But I eat more vegetables now, like cauliflower and broccoli."

The La Merced study has raised everyone's awareness that there is an urgency in addressing cholesterol in children, district administrator Norm Kirschenbaum said.

Overall Concerns

In addition to high levels of cholesterol, researchers found that the overall health of most La Merced students was worse than anticipated, as demonstrated by the high percentage of excess weight.

"Most of these kids have a passive life style," Kirschenbaum said. "There was an age when you went out and walked, climbed trees. You were active. Today's children come home and either sit in front of the TV or a computer game."

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