Healthy eating plays a significant role in child development and growth, and nutrition education is key to encouraging healthy eating habits. Learned early, these positive patterns can prevent chronic disease and support healthy behaviors throughout life. Without education on proper nutrition, however, children and their families may not understand the impact of a poor diet on health and learning. Studies show that children with poor nutrition are more likely to have a lower immune response, leading to illness and missed school days. Students often suffer academically, and may spread illnesses to other children at school.
Links To Nutrition
Childhood obesity is a significant health issue and an early sign of improper nutrition. Obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years, with nearly one in three U.S. children classified as overweight or obese. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans associates this with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease, among other chronic illnesses.
There is also a significant link between nutrition and behavior. This is not just the old saying, “Sugar makes children hyperactive”—there is a definite link between low-nutrient junk food and negative behaviors. Studies show that children who regularly consume non-nutritive foods (chips, processed foods, cakes, candy, sugary cereals) have more anger issues, more discipline problems and lower psychological well-being than those who are fed a nutritious diet. Supporting this finding, eligible children participating in the National School Breakfast nutrition program, established in 1975, have shown improved rates of attendance, behavior, concentration in class, and academic performance.
Children spend, on average, more than six hours a day in a learning environment, consuming about half of their daily calories at school. The focus of nutrition education in most school programs is choosing healthy foods—but not necessarily why eating healthy is so important. Despite the knowledge being provided to children about choosing healthy foods, a recent study showed up to 40 percent of daily calories for children and adolescents ages two to 18 were empty calories from added sugars and solid fats. About half came from six sources: soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza and whole milk. In addition, most youth do not drink enough water daily.
Improving Nutrition Education
With a steady increase in preventable diseases and behavioral issues, now more than ever is the time to focus on improving the quality of nutrition education for growing children and their families. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) promotes nutrition education as a cost-effective, evidence-based approach to improve child health and promote lifelong healthy eating habits.
One program for qualified families with children ages zero to five and pregnant women is called WIC (Women, Infants, and Children.) It promotes breastfeeding, provides nutrition education, and supplements food items to promote prenatal and early childhood health. The Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child program focuses on enhancing nutrition education in the schools. Schools are encouraged to integrate nutrition into the curriculum, while working with cafeteria staff to eliminate junk food and sweetened beverages. To reinforce the benefits of a healthy diet, it also includes a physical education component that goes hand-in hand with nutrition to build strong muscles and bones, address healthy weight and improve behavior.
A Community Approach
A community approach to nutrition education can help all of us ensure a healthy foundation. As individuals, we can support the following basic guidelines:
- Promote breastfeeding of babies. Breast milk contains the vitamins and nutrients babies need and is packed with disease-fighting substances.
- Increase fruits and vegetables. Fresh is always a great choice.
- Swap out refined grains for whole grains. Look for “whole wheat” as part of the first ingredient.
- Lower intake of processed meats like bacon, salami and cured meats.
- Eliminate added sugars like corn syrup, sugar, honey, molasses and sweeteners. Check the ingredient list to help reduce these items.
- Reduce salt intake. Instead try using herbs, spices, vinegar or citrus to flavor foods.
- Add exercise to boost nutritional benefits and improve overall health.
- Support policies that promote health and nutrition at home, at school and in our daily lives.
For a healthy foundation for life, support the teaching of healthy eating! For more information on public health issues, visit pcchd.org. PM