Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Should we ditch nutrition in schools?

That's what a recent non-scientific study conducted by the Associated Press would suggest.

In the study the AP examined 57 nutrition education programs conducted at schools and of them, only 4 showed anything even remotely resembling a positive result.

Some programs offered kids free fruits and vegetables, others gave prizes to students who ate fruits and vegetables, and most simply provided more in depth nutritional education. All programs were rather time and/or resource intensive.

Sounds discouraging, right? Kids will be kids and just won't change, right?

Maybe. However I can't help but wonder if the problem isn't with the kids, but rather with the programs. I've had the misfortune of being involved in the planning of some of these programs. I say "misfortune" because certainly in the cases where I've been involved the organizers involved in the programs' designs were often a hodge-podge of very well intentioned, but not necessarily expert folks who always want to promote the same old tired, overly simplistic and clearly useless messages of:

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • Eat less fast food
  • Exercise more
  • Watch less TV
  • Play fewer video games
  • Eat less fat

  • If I was setting up school nutrition curricula, certainly the one thing I would ensure was front and centre was the concept of energy. Calories. People are afraid of talking about calories. I've often heard folks express concern that if we teach kids about calories, we'll promote eating disorders. Never mind that there's never been a study that suggests that teaching calories leads to any sort of disordered eating behaviour; never mind that by teaching calories you could argue you're providing kids with minimum calorie targets thereby perhaps reducing anorexic risks; and never mind of course that calories that are the currency of weight. It's only in calorie blind world where low-fat muffins, fruit juice and smoothies are healthy choices. Teach kids how many calories they need and how to find them and perhaps they'll make different choices.

    Don't believe me?

    It worked in Pennsylvania with zero additional guidance. Four schools there simply posted calories on their cafeteria menu board and then tracked cafeteria purchases and low and behold, immediately kids started choosing the lower calorie options - the study was published here in the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management. A followup study showed that when you combined school nutrition programs with point of sale nutrition information, students were happier with the school nutrition programs as a whole.

    Schooling aside, regular readers of my blog will know that my belief is that the best way to combat childhood obesity is to walk the walk which is why when I counsel parents of overweight or obese children I always provide them with the same message,
    "Live the way you want your children to live and then hope for the best"
    As far as I'm concerned, the bigger problem here is the fact that adults aren't taught what's healthy or how to maintain a healthy body weight and consequently they're unable to walk the walk for their children. That's also why it's such a horrible shame that the Canadian government decided to put out a Food Guide that spent more time promoting industry in Canada than promoting an evidence-based approach to healthy eating with clear and useful guidance on weight management. I guess for now we should all just keep our fingers crossed that it doesn't take the government another 15 years to revise this one.