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Junk Food vs. Cafeteria Fare: A Rat's Tale

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More news from the nutrition frontlines: The Junction City, Wis., children in Sue Hall's 4th-grade science class are getting a daily lesson in the perils of junk food from two slightly "hyper" rats addicted to French fries and candy.

The rats--Boss Hog and Sweetie--are part of a five-week experiment. While the Boss and Sweetie swill Pepsi with their potato chips, two other rats--Casey and Rascal--are being served a balanced diet of nutritious foods from the Kennedy School cafeteria.

A fifth rat, Radar, acts as a "control" in the experiment; he must make do with prepared food pellets.

Each day, students assigned to the "rat patrol" select both the junk-food and healthy menus. And all class members record the results.

By observation and by weighing their subjects daily, Ms. Hall says, the students are able to see the physical and behavioral effects of the contrasting diets.

"By the end of the unit--even after the second week," she says, "students can see changes in the behavior of the junk-food rats."

The balanced-diet rats retain their shiny fur, remain calm, and like to be picked up. But their counterparts, the teacher reports, "get very hyper, run around their cages, and don't like to be handled."

In addition, notes Ms. Hall, who has included the experiment in her curriculum nine times, students generally observe that the fur of the junk-food rats "sticks up funny" and that their weight fluctuates widely from day to day.

The hands-on experiment increases the children's motivation to learn more about nutrition, she says, and "brings about a better understanding of why one needs the different food groups."

Though her students admit that they may continue to indulge an occasional junk-food craving, they have taken their new knowledge seriously. Dressed in custom-made red T-shirts with the logo "rat busters," they now visit 2nd- and 3rd-grade classes at the school to convey the results of their experiment--and the merits of a healthy meal.--jw

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