A recent study by researchers at the University of Sydney and Macquarie University has shown the essential role teachers play in educating children about nutrition and healthy eating. Yet a narrow view of education undermines their ability to help.
Associate Professor Wayne Cotton and his co-authors found 3,922 research articles about children’s nutrition and healthy eating. They narrowed these down to the 34 most relevant articles, and drew together their findings.
The results revealed that teachers can strongly influence children’s healthy eating.
The new study is of particular significance in Australia, given the dietary issues here. According to official statistics, in 2017–18, 67% of adults and 25% of children were overweight or obese. Meanwhile, only 5% of adults and 6% of children ate the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables.
Associate Professor Cotton, who is director of teacher education at the University of Sydney, says that children’s eating habits can set patterns that persist into adulthood, but a narrow focus in primary education hinders efforts to establish healthy habits.
‘Nutrition education is often seen as unnecessary because the content is not included on standardised tests,’ he said.
Nutrition education not assessed and not properly valued
When nutrition, and more broadly health, aren’t assessed as part of large-scale testing, teachers don’t always have time to teach students about them.
This is despite the important role teachers play in this regard, with research showing that teachers can help children eat more fruits and vegetables, lower their salt and sugar intake, and contribute to a general knowledge of nutrition.
The study authors said that, ‘Despite research showing that schools can make a positive impact on children’s nutritional outcomes, schools and teaching staff note many barriers that restrict nutritional education programming and delivery.’
Lack of resources and training
Along with standardised testing, they cite a lack of resources and training as a barrier, especially for primary school teachers, along with minimal nutritional education at university and the financial barrier of implementing nutritional programs in schools.
The research suggests that programs need to be longer rather than shorter to be effective, but there are disincentives for that, with many schools looking to external groups for nutrition education programs.
Unfortunately these programs are not as well-positioned as teaching staff to deliver ongoing nutrition education across curricular programs and over an extended period.
WHO backs teachers
The researchers cite the World Health Organisation to underline that ‘qualified teachers are the key agents for promoting health and nutrition within schools,’ with meta-analysis finding strong evidence for teachers’ efficacy in promoting healthy eating in students.
Ten of fourteen articles they reviewed showed increased fruit and vegetable consumption, while other articles found that teachers can have a medium effect on reducing overall energy intake.
It was more difficult for teachers to get children to consume less sugar, with their efforts having the smallest effect.
Overall though, ‘Schools are ideal settings for preventive nutrition education efforts targeting children due to their reach, structure, and cost-effectiveness,’ the study concluded.
This work suggests that prudent, evidence-based decisions need to be made by policy-makers and teachers regarding the best strategies to deliver nutrition education to young students.