I have always said that a healthy lifestyle is vitally important for children. My fourth book, The Food Cure for Kids, details how setting a good example and feeding kids well can improve brain function, help eliminate chronic health problems and boost their immune systems.
When it comes to childhood obesity, we have seen amazing progress on the issue of nutrition in schools. In the past few years, communities across the country have taken action to ensure that their schools phase out junk food and soda and replace them with fruits, vegetables and other nutritionally rich offerings. Michelle Obama has made it the mission of her tenure as First Lady to raise awareness about healthy lifestyles, traveling to schools to plant gardens and teach children fun ways to get moving. A TV show even follows Jamie Oliver as he goes across the country making over cafeteria menus. Their efforts should be applauded, and the rate of reform we have seen is impressive -- which is why the study I came across in the New York Times the other day alarmed me.
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University tracked the body mass indexes of almost 20,000 students over four years, tracking them from fifth to eighth grades and through their transitions to different schools, noting whether the schools provided junk food. They then compared the BMIs of kids who went to school with junk food all four years to kids who attended schools that had banned junk food, or kids who transitioned from schools with junk food to schools without and vice versa. In their final report, the researchers stated that no matter which way they sliced the data, they found no correlation between the presence of junk food in schools and the obesity levels of students.
I'm concerned that the results of this study will give schools that rely on funding from vending machines and advertiser sponsorships ammunition to continue resisting change. I'm concerned that those schools will say it is fine to have junk food in school since it doesn't make a difference, when that is clearly not what the research shows. This study reinforces the concept that eating habits are established at home. What that means for schools is it's incredibly important that children have the ability to act on those habits while at school. Just because there is not a direct link does not mean that the availability of junk food in school doesn't enable a child who already has poor eating habits. And if a parent puts in the time and effort to teach their child to eat healthy, they should be able to rest assured that their child will have the option to do so when away from home. Children need to learn to develop a taste for healthy foods both in and out of the home. Schools cannot be complicit in bombarding their students with poor food choices and undoing a parent's hard work.
The lesson to take away from this study isn't that we shouldn't bother reforming schools, but that parents also need to step up to the plate (pun intended) and work to teach their children healthy eating habits. Poor eating habits are tough to change, but not impossible. Here are some easy steps you can take to start changing how your child eats:
1. Make sure you're talking to your kids about nutrition. It's not a one-time discussion either -- take advantage of trips to the grocery store and family dinners to have an ongoing conversation about how nutrition works and why some foods are better than others.
2. Explain how advertising works. Watch TV with your kids, and when commercials for sugary and salty snacks come on, explain the tricks advertisers use and how commercials can make food seem better than it really is.
3. Don't make major changes quickly. Slowly reduce the amount of junk food you are giving your child as you introduce newer, healthier foods. This gives them time to adjust and develop a taste for them.
Schools and parents need to work together -- the responsibility doesn't lie solely with one or the other. Parents need to keep pushing schools to provide healthier choices that reinforce what they are teaching their children at home. Both schools and parents can and should provide the tools to create healthy eating habits. The battle won't be won in a day, but I am confident that it can be won.