The obesity crisis continues to dominate the majority of headlines about our nation's youth, and while recent research suggests that obesity levels seem to be stabilising in the under-10s, almost 40 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds are overweight, with a host of unpleasant potential health problems on the cards for the future.
The number of overweight people in the UK has trebled in the past 25 years, and one in three children is now overweight, with one in five classified as obese. Preventative education is working to some extent to slow down the rise, and schools are becoming increasingly strict about food and drink permitted on the premises. But, and here's the big but, the truth is that most children – and, indeed, most adults – have very little idea what their diets contain in terms of sugar, unhealthy fats and calories – and therein lies the problem.
While it is essential and sensible to implant the five-plus-a-day fruit and vegetable mantra in young minds, it is also important to educate kids on what is actually in the food they eat.
I am reminded of a Blue Peter programme I did over a decade ago, where kids brought in their favourite snacks for assessment. A 28g bag of tortilla chips clocked in at 150 calories, 8g of fat and 200g of salt, and many kids were eating more than one bag as a snack. Kids were picking up chips, milkshakes, fried chicken and even burgers as “snacks" on their way home from school, and eating an entire takeaway or frozen pizza for meals, when one or two slices would tip them over the recommended salt, fat and calorie intake for the day.
There's no question that kids know the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods, but are they clear about how that can of cola, a daily pizza or that bar of chocolate can add up to a kilo or so of extra weight over the course of a month? And equally, are they aware that there are almost no nutritional benefits whatsoever?
There are a couple of ways to go about this. First of all, challenge students to keep a food diary for the week, and then work out the fat, salt, sugar, protein and vitamin and mineral content of each meal.
It is good for their maths, if nothing else, and there are some great online calculators for this (see resources below), and for working out how many calories and nutrients kids need, dependent upon their weight, height, age and activity levels. Let them see for themselves where their diets may be going wrong, and assess the foods that are contributing to overweight, either now or in the future.
Ask them to plan a new, healthier menu for the coming week, finding lower-fat, nutrient-dense foods to replace the meals and snacks that are flagged. Whether or not they partake in making the changes, it is an educational and eye-opening experiment.
I have recently come across a fabulous scale that measures calories, fat, sugar, vitamins and minerals in any food placed upon it. You hook it up to an iPad via Bluetooth, and it does the calculation for you. So on goes your lunchtime sandwich and packet of crisps, or the two slices of pizza and carrot sticks, and it shows you the exact nutritional content, whether it's a single item or an entire meal.
I would suggest that one of these devices has a place in every classroom, staffroom, and home. There can be no clearer way to illustrate how different foods and portion sizes can lead directly to overweight. In fact, the inventor was once an obese adolescent himself, and it was this experience that drove him to make it easier for people to eat well and make informed judgements about what they put in their mouths, and in a matter of minutes. Get one of these in the classroom, and choose a few different foods – or perhaps a school dinner or the contents of a packed lunch – to test every week. As a learning tool, it has the potential to teach invaluable lessons about what is in the food we eat.
Use this and the diary to work out shortfalls in key nutrients, too. If a diet is low in iron, how does that affect overall health? How much fat is too much fat, and how much does each student need in their daily diet?
Appeal to their interests, too. Athletes need more of which nutrients? Great-looking skin in dependent upon what? What vitamins and minerals feed the brain and encourage memory retention? A group project might get kids comparing and chatting about their diets, and finding solutions that will benefit them as a whole.
It is not just about weight – kids within a healthy range may be eating a diet that fails to provide them with the nutrients they need for overall health and wellbeing, and that could lead to serious health problems in future. What would those be, and how can they be prevented with dietary changes?
It is a simple balance between energy in and energy expended that can keep excess weight at bay, so ask them what they would need to do to burn off the chicken and chips eaten on the way home from school, or the extra-large pizza they had for dinner last night. Again, there are a multitude of online resources for this.
As with all matters educational, practical, hands-on learning, undertaken in a relevant way, can have an impact far beyond any government leaflets or prescriptive PSHE class. Let them see for themselves what their diets are doing to their health, and only then will we see obesity levels start to drop.
Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email firstname.lastname@example.org