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Healthy eating is the biggest contributing factor to an individual’s well being and it is associated with an increased quality of life as well as longer life expectancy. For children and adolescents, schools play a major role in molding their eating habits.
Research revealed that in 2004, more than half of school-aged children received either breakfast or lunch in school (Terrence et al. 501). With this in mind, greater consideration should be placed on the foods that are being served to our youth in the school system.
This is in because dietary habits and preferences are acquired during childhood and they become habitual over time (Terrence et al. 501). Over the past decade, the nutritional quality of school meals has been called to question with unhealthy eating among school-aged children being prevalent.
This is a troubling phenomenon since unhealthy eating has many adverse effects to the individual. This paper shall set out to outline the foods that are served to our nation’s youth in the public school system so as to demonstrate that majority of American children have poor diets. The negative impact that poor food and dietary choices result in among children and adolescents shall then be articulated. The actions that are being undertaken to rectify the issue shall then be highlighted and further insight offered on how to end the issue of poor dietary habits among school aged children.
Food Served in Public Schools
Schools offer a wide array of foods at the various food outlets. Fruits and raw vegetables are some of the healthy foods that are offered. Some of these products are offered through the Farm-to-School programs which link local farmers providing locally grown produce to school cafeteria (Story, Nanney and Schwartz 81).
Bread and rolls made from whole grains also constitute the healthy meals offered by schools. However, Gordon et al notes that only 5% of breads and rolls eaten in schools were made from whole grains due to the higher cost of whole grain (34). It should be noted that even in instances where schools offer healthy meals; children opt for unhealthier foods which are not only tastier but also cost relatively cheaper.
The consumption of added sugars has in the recent past increased dramatically in the US. Frary et al reveal that teenagers are the age group which consumers most added sugars with added sugars contributing 20% of total energy intake for teenagers (56).
Added sugars are defined as “sugars and sweeteners and syrups that are eaten separately or used as ingredients in processed and prepared foods” (57). For the children aged between 6 and 17 in the US, the major sources of added sugars in their diets are: nondiet soft drinks, fruitade drinks and sweetened dairy products. These products are available through vending machines which are located all over schools (Lawrence). Added sugars increase the risk of a child becoming obese or getting type 2 diabetes.
Fast foods are the biggest culprits in promoting unhealthy eating habits among youths. Fast food, by definition, is “designed for ready availability, use, or consumption with little consideration given to quality or significance” (Freeman 2225). According to the CDC, 20% of schools in the USA offer brand-name fast foods such as McDonalds to the children during the school day.
The major fast foods consumed by children and adolescents in schools include: hamburgers, French fries and pizza. In most cases, the attraction with these fast foods is that they take very little time to prepare which greatly appeals to the schools which are in most cases hard pressed for time. Additionally, junk food is relatively low priced compared to healthier meals which not only take longer to prepare but also cost more (Assuras).
However, the fast foods consumed contain trans fats which have been linked to increased risk of heart diseases and have also been grossly implicated other health conditions including obesity and diabetes (Burniat 142). In addition to this, fast foods contain excessive amounts of fats, sugars and cholesterol; all which are associated with obesity and heart problems. Fast foods are also known to be prepared from saturated oils that are mostly reused over a period of days thus making them vulnerable to bacteria.
The overconsumption of soft drinks has also increased markedly thus further contributing to the unhealthy eating habits of high school students. This is because high consumption of soft drinks has a dilutional effect on children’s essential micronutrient intake.
Soft drinks are widely accessible to school children with many school districts having contracts with soft drink companies to promote the sale of soft drinks in schools. Research conducted by the CDC found that 33% of elementary schools, 71% of middle schools and 89% of high schools had a vending machine or canteen where students could purchase foods and beverages (Story, Nanney & Schwartz 73).
Staveren and Dale assert that this phenomenon is mostly as a result of under funded schools making contracts with big companies to sell their brand of products to the school (21). As such, schools have a vested interest in the promotion of the sale of these products (mostly beverages) as they receive a percentage of sales. Most schools therefore spot vending machines which are a principal source of extra money for the school.
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Negative results of Poor Eating Habits
A major consequence of poor dietary habits has been the increase of childhood obesity in the US. Dehghan, Danesh and Merchant observe that childhood obesity has reached catastrophic levels with 11% of children being classified as obese (2). Considering the fact that 70% of obese adolescents grow into obese adults, this rise in childhood obesity is cause for alarm.
Research further indicates that the prevalence rate of obesity has risen over the past couple of years and statistics by the Center for Disease Control and prevention (CDCb) show that according to the 2007 national youth risk behavior survey, 23% of US high school students were overweight.
This was a notable rise from the 5% level in the 1980’s. Childhood obesity results in a decline in child health since children who are obese are at increased risk of physical as well as psychosocial health consequences (Jelalian and Steele 52).
The CDC reports that there is a threat on the rise of Diabetes among school aged children and teenagers in the U.S. Particularly, type 2 diabetes has shown significant prevalence among children and adolescents. Type 2 diabetes was traditionally associated with adults aged above 40 years.
The prevalence of this diabetes in children has been blamed on the dietary practices adopted. A CDC report reveals that the obesity epidemic as well as decreased physical activities among the youth is responsible for the prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Fast foods are prepared mostly through deep-frying which leads to high cholesterol rates and heart attacks.
Poor dietary practices results in under nutrition which may have far reaching consequences. Under nutrition especially during childhood may have adverse long term consequences on the physical health and development of children.
Terrence et al reveals that under nutrition can impact negatively on a child’s cognitive development and school performance (502). This impact is long term in nature and irreversible hence highlighting the dangers that under nutrition poses. The overall dietary quality of children and adolescents who rely on fast foods is poorer than for those who take in healthy meals.
French et al further asserts that eating habits established in adolescence including preference for and reliance on fast food may place them at future risk for higher fat and energy intake as they move into young adulthood (1832). This predisposes them to increased sedentary behavior and excess weight gain which will impact negatively on their quality of life.
Addressing the Issue
Having highlighted the adverse effects that poor dietary habits may result in, it is obvious that a feasible solution is not only desirable but is the only way in which we can restore the health of the children. It has been extensively documented that the quality of food available in schools is of low nutritional value and unhealthy as it is mostly made up of snacks, fast foods and sodas.
Key to solving the obesity problem is an overhaul of the school nutrition program. For this plan to work, the support of the parents, policy makers and especially the staff at school would be most crucial. This is because the funding of healthy eating programs is both expensive and would incur some resistance from supporters of vending machines and fast foods. A significant approach would be for the school to participate in the Federal Meal program.
These programs adhere to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) thus providing students with nutritious meals (U.S. DHHS). These meals are reimbursable by the state thus greatly decreasing the price per meal making them much more affordable.
There is a general lack of educational programs on balanced diet in the school curriculum. School based programs can play an important role in promoting healthy eating lifestyle. Nutrition education is also fundamental to the success of any healthy dietary promotion efforts.
Terrence et al. states that the school environment should be consistent with the value of healthy food choices that children are taught in the classroom (502). Having vending machines and snack bars in the school environment sends mixed messages to children and therefore derides the healthy food choice culture that is being inculcated in the children. Schools should come up with policies that outline the provision of comprehensive, standards-based nutrition education that is integrated throughout the school curriculum (Pekruhnk 32).
The rationale behind this move is that even if students are obliged to take up health food choices in the school setting due to the programs in place, it will be of little help if they are not equipped to make health food choices outside of the school environment.
Teachers should therefore posses the necessary knowledge and comprehension of health education so as to teach the same to the students. This can be achieved by the use of seminars or certification courses on health education to enable the teachers to integrate this important information in their lessons. The CDC highlights the need for provision of nutritional education guidelines to school-age youths so as to ensure that health lifestyles are adopted early in life and perpetrated all through adulthood.
The overreliance to corporate sponsors by schools also poses a significant threat to the success of the health food since most students will be inclined to go for the junk foods and sodas which are more attractive to the youth.
Schools are in most cases forced to rely on the revenue they get from the large corporate sponsors due to poor funding by the federal government. The profit from selling fast food items in high school cafeteria helps to fund extracurricular programs and athletics.
This places school administrators in a dilemma. However, the health of the students must take precedence over this money making schemes. As such, sale of unhealthy foods in school must be all together stopped or else provisions must be put in place to set nutritional standards for these products.
Research by Frary et al indicated that the number of fruit and vegetable intakes by children decreased as intakes of sugar-sweetened beverages increased (61). It can therefore be inferred that decrease in junk foods and sodas will result in an increase in healthier food intake.
With regard to the issue of financial benefits from unhealthy foods, a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that while doing away with soft drink contract would result in lost revenue, the same could be recovered through increased participation in the school lunch program.
Discussion and Conclusion
While schools alone cannot solve the problems that poor diets cause, it is unlikely that childhood complications arising from poor diets can be reversed without strong school-based policies and programs to support healthy eating (Story, Nanney and Schwartz 72).
This is because the school environment has the potential to hugely impact on children’s diets because they consume up to 50% of their daily calories in school. Schools cannot achieve their primary objective of education if students are unhealthy and unfit.
It is therefore imperative that schools undertake measures to promote children’s health by creating an environment that promotes the intake of healthy foods and the establishment of lifelong skills for healthy eating. An important consideration in early education is that children in elementary school will in most cases fail to understand the implication of abstract concepts such as “nutritional content of food”. Focus should therefore be put in actual experiences of increased exposure to the healthy foods.
This paper set out to describe the nutrient intake and food choices associated with children and adolescents so as to highlight that majority of youths do not consume proper diets. It has been observed that the school environment encouraged poor dietary habits amongst children and adolescents.
Considering the long term nutrition and health consequences of poor dietary choices among children and adolescents, this paper has proposed solutions to rectify the issue. The paper has reaffirmed the notion that schools are in a position to promote healthy dietary behavior by children and adolescents.
However, for schools to help ensure appropriate nutrient intake, steps have to be undertaken to offset the current poor dietary practices. By doing this, the role of schools in the prevention of obesity, diabetes and other diet related complications can be exploited to the maximum with numerous benefits both to the children and the society at large.
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