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Junk Food Babes

03-Oct-2005

If education is meant to deliver knowledge and wise choices, why are we doing so little to educate our children about food?

Revelations about the ghastly content of school dinners by the British celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, last month brought the introduction of nutritional guidelines for meals and the banning of soft drinks and high-fat snacks from vending machines in UK schools. Some authorities in the US have also barred certain products from school vending machines, while France has banned such machines from schools altogether.

As a solution to obesity and the ill-health born of poor diet, such moves are tinkering.

The drift towards junk in British school dinners began two decades ago, with the introduction of choice. Faced with meat and two veg, or pizza and chips, children didn't hesitate. Soon it was barely worth serving up the vegetables - only to bin them uneaten.

The pattern has been the same in the home. Parents with little time to entice their offspring to eat spinach and pulses have long since given way to an unrelentingly poor diet.

This stand-down from a daily battle over fruit and vegetables is not because parents don't know that their children should have five portions a day.

Nor does it reflect some greater ease in buying crisps than apples.

Children prefer junk food.

And the results are grim.

Fresh figures released in March by the International Obesity Task Force (IOFT) show that the number of overweight European kids is rising by 400,000 a year, while in excess of 200 million adults across the EU may now be overweight or obese.

And the eating patterns that cause obesity begin in childhood, with evidence growing that what people eat is a blueprint that is largely in place before they are 10 years old.

If we are to tackle obesity there actually is only one way and one place to do it, and that is in the perception of the under-10s.

Nor is this out of reach.

The Child and Adolescent Trial for Cardiovascular Health (CATCH) nutrition education and physical activity programme was introduced for three years in 56 primary schools in the US, with striking results.

Children who took part were found to have decreased their daily intake of fat calories from 33 per cent to 30 per cent of their diet. Strikingly, that difference was maintained in a three-year follow-up study.

Turn back to the UK. While political mileage is being made from the junk food vending machine ban, the commitment on nutritional education is, at best, slim-line.

For a subject such as history, primary schools enjoy a detailed curriculum, together with rules on how much time is to be spent on the subject and the material to be taught to different age groups. Children are guaranteed at least some historical insight.

Not so on nutrition. The National Curriculum states only that, children should be taught "the need for a balanced diet" and the "sources of carbohydrates, proteins, fats". The way in which this should be taught is determined by individual teachers, as is the amount of time involved (in the hours available behind an otherwise demanding curriculum), using undefined material: to achieve results that will never be tested.

This is not to say that many teachers do not find time and ways of delivering this message. But as far as our policy-makers are concerned they need do little except mention it.

And how boring for children to be told that they should eat vegetables.

Yet we have ways of educating that are powerful enough. In the UK, no one likes much to talk about bodies. And the fact that childhood constipation is a national epidemic is definitely taboo.

But for the casualty departments stocked with enemas to aid the procession of children who arrive in pain, but with nothing more serious than constipation, it is a sorry reality.

If we could bear to tell children that the results of poor diet are not just cancer in 40 years time, but discomfort today, tomorrow and every day, maybe then we would see some wiser choices from our wee ones.

Add to this that junk-food babes are not just rounder, but set to be shorter, less muscular and less physically and mentally able.

Of course, we can remove a vending machine, and a child may forego a carbonated drink for a few hours.

But get little Johnny to comprehend that eating fruit and vegetables will make him a super-action hero and spare him discomfort, and there's a good chance you will kindle his enthusiasm for essential fatty acids at school, at home, and forever.

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