Childhood obesity — education is key

In recent years, Ireland has gone from famine to feast, we are now faced with the same problem of obesity as the rest of Europe and the developed world. How to stop the spread? Our lifestyle that had kept us slim is gone — replaced by the hallmarks of the global scourge of obesity. Levels are higher in rural areas, as people drive everywhere. Obesity is also a bigger problem among the less well off. We have been getting fatter for a long time and the Government has proposed, among other things, a colour coded labeling system, calorie labeling on menus, and on fatty, high sugar and salt foods.

The food and drink industry body, Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII ) claims that fat and sugar taxes could have a negative impact on employment in the food and drink sector and are unproven in terms of effectiveness in tackling lifestyles. Big Food business is profit-driven, supported by corporate lobbies that have little interest in reducing the amount of processed food. The importance of a return to cooking fresh food and avoiding dependence on high-calorie, processed, food is what should be at the heart of efforts to reduce obesity in Ireland.

Practical online help is everywhere on the topics of budgeting, nutrition, smart shopping, and cooking. But many aspects of our unhealthy food culture has gone beyond the control of individual parents. What is needed now are controls on food marketing, higher nutritional standards for foods targeted at children, and State intervention to ensure accessibility of healthy foods, rather than calorie-rich, nutrient-poor, cheaper foods for those living in poverty. Without these measures, the child (and later adult ) obesity epidemic will surely continue.

School age is the perfect time for children to learn about healthy food and activity, as they start a busy social life, and have pocket money and begin to choose their own lifestyle. Children of this age learn quickly but are also influenced by their friends, trends, and advertising. The amount of physical activity they have in a day will be an important part of how much they need to eat. Some children of this age are still fussy, but, when busy and active, snacking is important to keep energy levels high. A healthy morning snack at break time and one after school are usually needed each day. The IFWG wants to see the Government provide better food education in schools, promote health foods, and restrict other options.

Overconsumption of unhealthy foods has led to an obesity epidemic that threatens the next generation with a lifetime of diet-related diseases. Most young people know that they need to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, and that processed and sugary foods aren’t good for them. We have been told this for decades. But still childhood obesity levels continue to rise in tandem with a decline in kitchen skills.

There are continuous 'food scares' and an often conflicting array of health claims about foods. While food education has improved, critical thinking skills and cooking experience are lacking. Nutritional labeling has been in Ireland for years, but the country’s collective weight is still increasing. There is a need for the establishment of a nutrition and healthy eating programme in the primary school syllabus. This should be unified and mandatory for all schools. Food education in school has never been needed more — it is the missing ingredient in school policy.

At secondary level, however, there are gaps in food education with few significant strides being made in developing healthy-eating policies. Only half of schools that responded to the Department of Education’s 2012 LifeSkills survey have a formal healthy-eating policy in place. Little progress has been made in areas such as healthy lunch promotion or facilities for selling fresh fruit. In secondary schools there are many shortcomings; food education is primarily covered in home economics, biology, and SPHE, along with some transition year programmes.

In many schools students have a taster of home economics along with other subjects in first year. Those who do not go on to take it as a subject will have had just a few weeks of food education. We as a country are moving away from mandatory food education at secondary level. SPHE is now mandatory only at junior level, and has a short module on healthy eating and exercise that is usually covered in two to four weeks.

The difficulty of delivering the bulk of food education through home economics lies in a pronounced gender gap. Of the students who sat this subject for the Leaving Cert last year, just 11 per cent were boys. As well as this, the grades of boys who do take home economics are significantly weaker than girls, with just under 60 per cent of boys securing a high grade, compared with almost 80 per cent of girls.

Not every school is properly equipped to teach home economics. It is a resource intensive subject requiring ovens, sinks, and a wide range of equipment and utensils. Outside home economics, there is very little chance for children and young people to take their theoretical food knowledge and apply it to the practical experience of cooking. Some cooking skills and critical thinking about nutrition would be a welcome addition. Young people can be especially affected by food fads and diets, and it is questionable whether they get the critical thinking skills they need in this area.

The importance of intervention at an early age in order to have a long-term effect must be stressed. In view of the fact that the World Health Organisation attributed four per cent of the disease burden in developed countries to low fruit and vegetable consumption, and the growing incidence of overweight and obesity among children, there are clearly high and rising costs associated with inaction. Given the complexity of the issue and the range of policy domains across which it intersects, there is a need for the Government and schools to provide coherence and guidance on this urgent matter.

The majority of Irish school going children bring a packed lunch during the day, especially given the prevalence of schools in Ireland which are in remote areas and/or have small numbers. There are now a number of healthy school lunch programmes established, and we should encourage all schools to develop these healthy policies.

There is room to help develop critical thinking regarding health and food so we can make informed choices. People can all too easily be influenced by headline-grabbing stories and forget the basics — that whole grains, fruit, and vegetables are best for health.

Part of any programme would require developing a level of media literacy among young people to enable them to recognise the difference between solid evidence and unproven claims about food and nutrition. Both children and parents do need to be somewhat discriminating about who we listen to in the media when it comes to food advice.

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