According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the proportion of adolescents who are dealing with obesity has tripled since the 1970s. Based on data from 2017-2018, the CDC estimates that over 20% of young people from ages 6-19 are considered obese or severely obese and an additional 16% are considered overweight. With so many school-aged children and adolescents struggling to develop healthy eating habits, it is more important than ever to emphasize school-based nutrition education activities.
Overview of School Nutrition Education
Throughout the last century in the United States, researchers have gained considerable insight into how good nutrition can have a positive impact on health outcomes for young people. Over this time, many attempts have been made to improve public health through both education and school meals programs. One of the first efforts was the National School Lunch Program, a national initiative developed in 1946 that provided low-cost or free lunches to students in public schools. The program was expanded in 1966 and is still in effect today, serving over 30 million children every day.
The success of the school lunch program eventually prompted even further legislative efforts to improve the health and wellbeing of elementary school, middle school, and high school students. In 1978, the National Education and Training (NET) Program was created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide school health education resources. By incorporating nutrition lessons into school curriculum along with providing healthy meals, legislators hoped to set students up to make better food choices.
Unfortunately the NET program was effectively discontinued by the late 1990s, but the USDA has continued to provide nutrition knowledge and dietary guidelines so that students, parents, and school districts can make healthy choices about food. Over the years, these guidelines for healthy eating have come in many forms, including the “Basic 7” food groups, the “Basic 4” food groups, and the Food Guide Pyramid. Today the USDA endorses the “MyPlate” system that has been refined based on the latest research into healthy food and wellness policies.
Why Is Nutrition Education Important in a School Environment?
For students of every grade level, the school year is a formative time when they are open to learning new things. It is a unique era in life when students are most receptive to new information about how to live a healthy life. Providing healthy school meals is one aspect of developing good lifestyle habits, but there is also a chance to communicate the principles that have come from current research to update guidelines and programs. Below are some ways that nutrition education can be incorporated into schools:
- Health class: Health classes are already geared toward teaching students about various aspects of health, but they are also an ideal venue to talk more specifically about how physical activity and nutrition affect health. For instance, the overwhelming majority of research makes it clear that eating healthy meals that emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins are crucial in preventing many types of chronic disease.
- Farm-to-school programs: Most of the U.S. population lives in urban areas and may not be aware of agricultural practices and how they relate to human health. By learning about ideas like local sourcing and sustainability, students will be more likely to make better choices in the future.
- School gardening: Different students learn in different ways, and that’s why interactive teaching styles may be as effective as lectures. By having students involved in maintaining a school garden, they will get hands-on knowledge about fruits and vegetables and how to fold them into their diet.
- Cafeteria: Students go to the cafeteria every day to eat lunch, and it is an ideal location for students to be exposed to new foods and balanced meals. There are many different ways to use the space and meals to further promote nutrition education.
- Nutrition messaging: The basic fact is that eating healthy helps you live longer and requires fewer medical interventions during the course of your life. This message can be reiterated through a variety of methods like school announcements, assemblies, posters, and parent-teacher meetings.
Improving Childhood Obesity
Teaching nutrition facts and implementing child nutrition programs are both important steps in counteracting the trend of childhood obesity. The truth is, though, that there are a variety of factors that contribute like genetics, sleep routines, and physical activity levels. To really make a difference, families need to also collectively play a role in promoting the kinds of healthy behaviors that lead to better long-term health outcomes. Below are some ways that young people can take healthier steps and decrease the chances of becoming overweight or obese:
- Model healthy eating: One of the best ways to instill a healthy eating pattern is by having parents and other family members model it. When children learn to make healthy good choices at an early age, they will be more likely to keep making those kinds of choices as they get older.
- Exercise as a family: Getting regular physical activity can help kids burn more calories and maintain a healthy weight, but some kids may find it difficult to participate in all activities. By exercising together as a family, the kids will have a chance to learn the value of exercise in a safe environment.
- Establish regular sleep patterns: Research from recent years continues to show that a lack of quality sleep can be a risk factor for a wide variety of health conditions. Families have the ability to set normal sleep patterns that can help everyone in the household get the amount of sleep that they need to be healthy.
- Swap screen time for family time: There’s no doubt that the rise of the internet in the last 20+ years has had both positive and negative effects. Young people have grown up with various screens dominating different aspects of life, and there is substantial research that this can lead to health problems. By swapping out screen time for family time, kids get an opportunity to practice some balance in how they spend their time.
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