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Use nutrition education to fight obesity

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A new study by UNICEF ranks Canada 27 out of 29 developed countries for our high rate of child obesity (in Manitoba, a third of our children are now overweight or obese).

Manitoba Education recently has made physical education mandatory for all high school grades as the strategy to address child obesity. Such a strategy, however, addresses only one of the two relevant problems, and not necessarily the most important one.

Evidence in the scientific literature shows the "obesity epidemic" is being driven mainly by taking in too many calories from mostly nutritionally inferior foods -- sweet and salty snacks, soft drinks, fast and convenience foods. A recent study by CancerCare Manitoba reports only four per cent of youth eat enough fruits and vegetables. This is not to say we shouldn't focus on physical activity; we should all be more active. But given the vast availability and high consumption of these "ultra-processed" foods, we would all have to be training for the marathon to be in "caloric balance."

Another strategy by Manitoba Education has been to incorporate nutritional health "theory" into the physical education curriculum.

Again, this strategy speaks to only one of two relevant problems, by addressing the "theoretical" aspect of nutrition education.

In physical education, we would not expect students to learn how to play basketball through lectures or by watching videos. Similarly, to be food- and nutrition-literate requires more than knowing you should eat your veggies and the four food groups; children need opportunities to apply knowledge through hands-on experiential learning.

To be able to reduce the consumption of highly processed and fast food requires the development of skills related to planning, cooking and making appropriate choices when buying groceries. It requires opportunities to learn how food is grown and produced.

And it requires developing skills to navigate the 20,000 new food products that appear in the food market each year, most of which are loaded with fat, sugar and salt.

So where should our kids be learning to be food- and nutrition-literate? The most likely candidate is home economics, sometimes called human ecology.

Unfortunately, home economics/human ecology education has been under threat for some time from misperceptions of its social and educational value, pressure from other optional school programming, a lack of new teachers entering the field, and lately, the proposed closure of the faculty of human ecology at the University of Manitoba.

The current provincial home economics curriculum is more than 25 years old. If we want to see students develop the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to live a meaningful and healthy life through public education, public education needs to go beyond emphasizing traditional academic subjects and give equal consideration to foundational skills and capacities relevant to their daily living, which is the specific focus of home economics courses.

A recent study shows interest and enrolment in Manitoba's home economics, food and nutrition classes have increased over the last 10 years. Less than half our youth have had the opportunity to take these classes in middle school. The number drops down to seven per cent by Grade 12, and many students have significantly less food knowledge and fewer skills than in the past. Examples: one student didn't know what a pitcher was because he thought all beverages came in a disposable container; and some Grade 7 students have never cracked an egg. The study also showed home economics is too often seen as an expensive "frill" that is being squeezed out by other optional programming.

Changes to societal and family structures over the last number of decades have changed where children and youth learn skills, knowledge and attitudes needed for daily living, including those related to food and nutrition. Many children are no longer being mentored at home because families are busy or don't value spending time learning about food, creating a vicious cycle where the frequent use of convenience and fast foods becomes an increasingly "normal" part of daily life.

These changes have left a generation (or two) de-skilled while grocery shelves have transformed into a cornucopia of prepackaged, processed foods.

Given the state of our youth's knowledge, skills and attitudes so relevant to their health and their current nutritional status, home economics should urgently be re-examined for its unique ability to equip our children with foundational competencies necessary to live well in their daily food world.

This goes beyond physical health and includes understanding where food comes from, its impact on the environment and our bodies, and how food is a central part of culture and society. Making home economics a choice alongside physical education would be a start. We owe our children quality food and nutrition education as a basis for living their daily lives well, responsibly and healthily.

Joyce Slater, PhD, is an assistant professor in the faculty of human ecology at the University of Manitoba. She wrote this in collaboration with Thomas Falkenberg, PhD, an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 A17

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