Extra helping of education needed in obesity battle

by Keith Nunes
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photo of Keith Nunes Much discussion has been heard during the past few months about childhood obesity and what ought be done to reduce its incidence. Despite the high volume and fierce intensity of the debate, a key component to addressing childhood obesity and, indeed, adult obesity has been omitted from the equation — the need for nutrition education in schools.

The goal of programs targeting childhood obesity such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is to provide healthier foods in schools, help children become more physically active and make healthy foods available to consumers throughout the country. Other programs addressing this issue have similar goals, and while they all have the laudable target of making sure consumers have ready access to healthy foods, they neglect the daunting challenge of attempting to ensure both children and adults understand why and know how they need to manage their food intake and physical activity levels.

Producing and promoting food and beverage products perceived as healthier, making sure students in schools have access to healthier foods, and even posting calorie counts on food service menus are all good ideas, but if consumers do not understand why they should be consuming such foods or in what portion sizes, such efforts will be wasted.

For people in the food and beverage industries as well as medical and public health officials it may be obvious what individuals and parents need to do to manage their own weight as well as the weight of their children. But as the incidence of obesity in adults and children has worsened, it is clear that expanded education is needed beyond the efforts of federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state public health agencies.

It is easy to place the blame for obesity in children on the parents, but in many cases adults may be equally as ignorant of their nutritional and exercise needs as their children. For the adults, programs are in place to help them learn what they need to do to improve their health and wellness. For children, the structured environment of a classroom provides the ideal venue for addressing one of the most challenging public health issues before the country today.

For a long time, nutrition education was relegated in schools to courses such as home economics. But as budget constraints have forced school districts to pare curriculums, many programs that featured a nutrition education component have been suspended. Today, nutrition education is often included in health studies. Instead, it should be incorporated into considerably more diverse curriculums such as biology, science and even mathematics.

As society has evolved, access to a variety of food and beverages has become easier. In turn, this means that greater efforts must be undertaken to ensure students comprehend diet and nutrition fundamentals. Such education efforts, if successful, will have many long-term benefits. The most notable promise would be realized by shifting the focus of health management away from addressing a specific condition that may be associated with obesity to preventing such a condition from occurring.

It has become strikingly evident that simply telling consumers they need to eat better is not a viable obesity prevention effort. To aid in ending the obesity epidemic among children, subjects like nutrition science and weight management should be addressed in the structured format of the classroom. Only by educating children in all aspects of nutrition science so they learn the role positive nutrition practices play in a healthy life will the issue of obesity truly be addressed.
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