Nutrition Education in Schools Experiences and Challenges
Nutrition education aims to improve food and nutrition-related behaviours. It involves creating and communicating messages that are targeted to specific groups of people (JOFF, 2017).
Children’s behaviours, beliefs and attitudes are formed at a young age. Schools are one of the main social contexts in which these are shaped.
Students spend 26 hours in school during the week, making it an important environment to teach children about healthy eating. Schools should promote healthful eating behaviors and provide nutrition education that reflects the needs and interests of their students, teachers and staff.
For example, elementary-aged children are not ready to learn abstract concepts about nutrient content and should be exposed to foods that appeal to them, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy. Schools can also use worksite policies to encourage the participation of faculty and staff in physical activity and healthy eating practices.
For medical school students, nutrition education should be formally and informally woven into interprofessional learning through health mentor sessions, cases, lectures and small group case discussions, as well as through the incorporation of evidence-based nutrition resources into curriculum and teaching tools. These resources include printed and online student workbooks, interactive games, digital programs and videos. Ideally, these tools should be low cost and easily incorporated into existing curricula and resources.
In addition to reducing the risk of obesity and related diseases, healthy eating habits promote learning and help students become well-balanced individuals who are better able to cope with life’s challenges. Nutrition education helps young people develop a healthy relationship with food that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
But nutrition education can be challenging to implement in school systems where teachers are already pressed for time and there are limited resources. In a study of 101 food and nutrition education programs operating in NYC schools, it was found that the programs varied widely in goals, content, activities, academic subjects addressed and population served.
A curriculum that addresses nutrition science and focuses on nutrients rather than appearances or social worth may be more effective. In addition, practical education about choosing nutritious snacks and understanding food advertising and labels can help students become wise consumers. Finally, policies that encourage nutrition education from family members can help ensure positive eating behaviors last longer.
Nutrition education is a vital part of a school’s curriculum. Teaching students healthy eating habits helps them grow, learn and perform better in the classroom and throughout their lives.
Research has found that the majority of teachers do not have a standardized nutrition curriculum provided to them. As a result, the topics that are taught by teachers can vary widely. For example, in one study teachers reported teaching about “Weight Management,” but only 37% of teachers actually did so. Other important topics, such as “Recognizing Advertising Techniques” and “Ethnic Food Patterns,” were not frequently taught.
Providing teachers with resources that are appropriate to their students’ age levels is also crucial. Teaching middle school students about the nutritional value of foods, based on the USDA’s yourSelf curriculum, for example, can help them learn to make wise food choices as adults. This can also support positive dietary behaviors at home, as well. Previous studies have found that parental involvement in children’s dietary habits is a critical component of the effectiveness of any nutrition intervention.
A number of different methodologies are available for evaluating nutrition education programmes. These include large-scale randomized field experiments, time series analysis, qualitative field methods, quantitative cross-sectional studies, rapid appraisal techniques and participant observation. The use of these varied methods should be integrated in the planning stage of a programme.
Educating children is challenging because of the need for a wide range of information and the complexity of food and eating patterns. Students receive a stream of accurate and inaccurate information from the media, their parents, and their peers.
Nutrition education can help students learn to become more self-aware about their eating habits. Activities that allow children to explore the mind-body connection encourage them to think about how different foods affect their bodies and emotions. These lessons can also teach children about culinary variances across cultures, and foster appreciation for diversity in food culture. This type of awareness may lead to improved dietary choices. Surveys indicated that children who discussed diet with their guardians thought being careful about what they eat was important and that talking with their guardians about the food they ate was helpful.