CONCORD -- Cristian Gonzalez and Stephanie Lopez want to help people like their grandparents -- who have diabetes -- learn how to eat healthier foods so they can feel better and live longer.

"There's a lot of people gaining weight because of fast food," Cristian, 16, of Bay Point, said as he sauteed vegetables in a healthy cooking class offered this school year at Mt. Diablo High. "We learn how to eat healthy and switch up our diets so we can be more active and not just be lazy and do nothing."

Stephanie, a 17-year-old Concord resident, plans to become a nutritionist so she can teach diabetics about alternatives to foods that are high in salt. Cristian plans to be a chef or nutritionist so he can share what he has learned to help change the way people eat.

Both students have embraced the motto of the pilot healthy cooking and sustainable tourism program: "Change the food, change everything."

It's a lofty goal, but one that teacher Cindy Gershen, who owns the Sunrise Bistro in Walnut Creek, is communicating passionately to students.

Gershen's class grew out of a "Wellness City Challenge" healthy eating initiative she launched several years ago in Walnut Creek. She has enlisted the help of Dr. Robert Lustig, a renowned child obesity expert from UC San Francisco who has written a book about his research called "Fat Chance."

Lustig visited Gershen's class earlier this week to talk to students about the dangers of sugary, processed foods. Sugar can affect the liver in the same way as alcohol, his research shows.

"It looks exactly the same under the microscope," he said. "Kids don't consume alcohol. But they do consume lots and lots of sugar."

He issued a sugar-free diet challenge to students in Gershen's class and to students in an environmental science class who manage an on-site organic garden. He asked them to eliminate added sugars from their diets for seven days, then write about their experiences. Gershen told some other teachers, and they agreed to ask their students to take the challenge.

Because of what they've learned, Gershen said her students now know good substitutes for sugary foods. Stephanie said she stopped eating chips and drinking soda after learning of the health problems those foods can cause. She's looking forward to seeing how she will feel after cutting back on sugars for a week.

"I think it's going to be a challenge, but I can do it," she said, while sauteing pineapple chunks for a whole-wheat pizza. "Since I got into Chef Cindy's class, I've been eating way healthier. I just want to take good care of my body."

Students love the class, despite "house rules" that include no junk food.

Lustig laughed, recalling Gershen's reaction to one student who disobeyed the rule.

"She put the fear of God into the kid with Gatorade," he said.

Gershen lamented the loss of home economics instruction in schools nationwide. Teaching teens about nutrition and cooking from scratch can help stave off obesity and diabetes, she said.

"That is the cheapest, most preventive medicine you could provide," she said. "These kids are buying into it."

Gershen's students say they feel better now that they've cut back on fast foods. "Change the food," Cristian said, "change the community."

After thinking for a moment, he added: "Change the future."

MORE INFORMATION
Additional details about the Wellness City Challenge and Gershen's healthy cooking class are available at www.wellnesscitychallenge.org.
To see some of Gershen's recipes, go to www.contracostatimes.com/education.