UPMC Teaches Pittsburgh Public School Students about Nutrition

By: Madison Brunner

UPMC Teaches Pittsburgh Public School Students about NutritionFifth grade students at Woolslair Elementary School laughed and cheered while singing water bottle Moe Flow and the soda can band The Belchers competed for America’s Next Top Bottle.

They are two of the animated cartoon characters called Fitwits and Nitwits, which Dr. Ann McGaffey, of UPMC St. Margaret Family Medicine, uses to combat childhood obesity.

Supported by years of research, Fitwits is an educational tool that frames discussion about childhood obesity, body mass index, nutrition, physical activity and portion sizes. Visually engaging food and snack-based characters are animated to illustrate both healthy and unhealthy foods and conditions such as obesity. In collaboration with Kristin Hughes, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, UPMC experts researched methods of conveying nutrition information and tested their effectiveness.

The experts discovered that students have a stronger understanding of healthy nutrition habits after the Fitwits program.

“It’s a fun way to teach a serious topic,” McGaffey said. “Childhood obesity is a tough conversation to have, so we aim to make the topic more comfortable. Fitwits is an easily understood, child-friendly tool.”

Children look forward to seeing McGaffey and family medicine residents and students in their classroom. She kicked off the afternoon by giving each student a candy, and playing music while everyone danced for two minutes. They were surprised to learn how the two minutes of activity only burns the calories consumed in the piece of candy.

UPMC Teaches Pittsburgh Public School Students about NutritionThe entire program engaged students in discussion and group activity with peers. They learned how to portion food with their hands, demonstrating how everyone’s portion sizes are different. Some activities were lighthearted and fun, while others were more serious. During the heart health discussion, students learned how common high blood pressure and heart disease are when more than half the class said they have a family member with one of these conditions.

By the end of the program, every student in the class was eagerly participating and excited to answer a trivia question and play the nutrition memory game.

“Nutrition habits form at a young age,” McGaffey said. “So there is no better time to teach students the importance of a healthy lifestyle.”