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Heart Health Project Plays in Pawtucket : Fitness: A 10-year experiment in changing residents' lifestyles is spreading the word that a smoke-free, low-fat, active life can be painless.


PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Regular customers at the Cup 'N Saucer can order fried clams, but they may get a turkey sandwich.

Wander in off the street, order a burger and fries, and owner Nick Georgitis may suggest a boiled potato with lemon instead.

"I tell them right off--I like to see these people have something good," he said.

Georgitis is one of the more enthusiastic followers of the Pawtucket Heart Health Program, a 10-year project to teach this working-class city of 72,000 residents better health habits.

The program is built on the belief that people with poor health habits learned them in society, and can unlearn them, said Thomas Lasater, director of the project and an associate professor of health at Brown University.

The project started in 1981 with a $20-million grant from the National Institute of Health. Today, restaurants, grocery stores, schools, churches, civic centers, businesses and 4,000 volunteers help spread the word that a smoke-free, low-fat, active life can be painless.

One sausage maker worked with the program to develop a Portuguese sausage with lower fat, Lasater said.

Former couch potatoes who joined a free fitness class designed especially for non-exercisers continued when it was over, renting their own space, said Joan Lovell, the program's marketing director.

Richard Carleton, principal investigator of the program and physician-in-chief at Memorial Hospital, believes the program can work nationally--good news for U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, who recently announced goals for improving Americans' health over the next decade.

"Healthy People 2000" identifies nearly 300 specific health objectives, including several covered in the Pawtucket plan.

Statistics are not yet available for the Pawtucket program, Carleton said.

"We know that we have had huge numbers of people participate, that we influenced their behavior," he said. "What we don't know is, will it reduce the number of heart attacks?"

A similar undertaking in Stanford used preliminary data to estimate that the risk of heart disease was reduced by 20 percent, he said.

The program works when health professionals, the food industry, government agencies and educational resources act together, he said. Gregg's restaurant, for example, marks menu items that meet the program's standards with a red heart.

Pawtucket's guidelines are more restrictive than those of the American Medical Assn.

"All along we kept getting calls from our customers that they wanted us to expand on it and couldn't we have more items," said Bob Bacon, vice president of Gregg's Restaurant Inc. "We decided that we would design a complete menu from appetizers to desserts."

The menu was introduced last month at all three Gregg's restaurants in Rhode Island and the response has been excellent, he said.

The Pawtucket Heart Health Program sampled the new creations, and helped the restaurant determine the sodium, fat and calorie content, Bacon said.

"One of the things we've been learning is how it can be mutually beneficial for everyone," said Lasater. "It's a win-win situation."

New York recently set up a program in eight communities based on the Pawtucket model. People from more than two dozen countries have visited Pawtucket to study the program, Carleton said.

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