Lessons in healthy eating

A range of initiatives are addressing the dangerously poor standards of nutrition among UK pupils
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The Independent Online

In the battle for our children's health, chocolate and chips still reign in school canteens, with salads and vegetables largely ignored, all of which means that our children are likely to grow into unhealthy adults, saturated with fats and prone to heart disease and diabetes.

According to The Government's National Diet and Nutrition Survey of 2000, children are consuming almost double the recommended amount of sugar, saturated fat and salt. This study of 1,700 4- to 18-year-olds found that while 92 per cent were eating more than adult maximum levels of saturated fat, they were consuming less than half the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.

Hardly surprising then, that one in 10 six-year-olds and one in six 15-year-olds is now obese. "There are short-term and long-term health implications of being obese as a child," says Roy Ballam of the British Nutrition Foundation. "In the short term, being obese can increase blood pressure and cholesterol levels - plus have an impact on self-esteem. In the long term it is linked in adulthood with increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. And obese children are much more likely to become obese adults."

A recent survey by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) found a number of popular products, such as pizza and baked beans, contained more than half the amount of salt recommended for adults to consume in a day. Too much fat, sugar and salt can increase the risk of high blood pressure, some cancers and strokes. To top it all, a poor diet can affect concentration, performance and behaviour in the classroom.

Despite concerted efforts on the behalf of schools to educate young people about healthy eating, for many young people it is still a case of "chips with everything". An FSA survey of 5,695 11- to 16-year-olds at 79 secondary schools showed just 6 per cent of pupils chose a salad or vegetable option - despite the fact that 91 per cent of schools included these foods on their menus.

For optimum health, the FSA recommends a balanced diet, rich in fruit, vegetables, bread, cereals and potatoes, with moderate amounts of milk, dairy products, meat and fish. Foods containing fats and sugars should be consumed in small amounts.

Water is another key component of a healthy balanced diet. The World Health Organisation recommends children drink six to eight glasses of water every day - three to four of these while at school. The benefits of topping up water levels are numerous, not just in terms of healthy skin and bodies, but also because studies have also shown that keeping hydrated can improve levels of concentration and brain function.

The Water in Schools project, run by EdComs on behalf of the Department for Health, focuses on schools in the North-east and East Midlands. Before starting the pilot, researchers looked at current water provision and pupil and teacher attitudes towards drinking it. Mains-connected water coolers were installed in participating schools and drinking-bottles were provided so that each pupil had a water bottle to refill and take to classes.

"Many of the facilities were out of date - in some cases they weren't even functioning," says Jon Batterham, associate director at EdComs. "This led to real problems last summer during the particularly hot spell where some schools were forced to ship in crates of bottled water. Before the pilot, water was often poorly perceived by pupils, who favoured chilled carbonated drinks from the canteen or vending machines. The pilot has changed the way water is presented in schools - it is now chilled and perceived to taste better and be fresher."

Fortunately, some school caterers are wising up to the need to offer healthy, balanced meals. At the Dene Magna Carta School in Gloucestershire, burgers, chips, pizza and nuggets were recently dropped in favour of locally sourced healthy produce - meat from a local butcher, free-range eggs from local farms and fruit and vegetables from a local supplier.

Packed lunches are often viewed as the healthy alternative to school meals. But recent research from the FSA indicates that children's lunchboxes are not as healthy as they might seem. The study showed that only 21 per cent met the nutritional standards currently set for school meals.

Children were shown to eat close to half (2.4g) of their daily recommended salt intake, up to 4g over the lunchtime recommended levels of saturated fat (11g) and twice the recommended amount of sugar. The most popular foods were a white bread sandwich containing cheese or ham, a packet of crisps, chocolate bar and a fizzy drink or fruit juice. Fewer than half of the lunchboxes contained a portion or fruit or vegetables.

"Children are opting for a lot of convenience and snack foods for their packed lunches, such as crisps, biscuits, cakes and sweetened soft drinks," says Sam Church, a nutritionist at the FSA. "But these foods are often high in salt, fat and sugar, without providing children with the vitamins and minerals they need to grow and develop."

The Food In Schools Programme is a joint venture between the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills to fund a range of food-related initiatives in schools to help them develop sustainable programmes to promote healthy eating in children, including healthier breakfast clubs, healthier tuck shops, healthier lunchboxes and water provision.

Students in the South-east recently benefited from the development of a "Healthier Lunchbox Development kit" as part of the Food In Schools Programme. Designed to give packed lunches a healthy makeover, the kit contained an activity guide for pilot schools, with ideas for linking healthy eating to the national curriculum, supported by a training day for teachers.

Project leaders teamed up with Sainsbury's to run the Healthy Lunchbox Challenge as part of its Taste Of Success initiative, asking children in the South-east to design their ideal healthy lunchbox. "Many of our students wouldn't necessarily be introduced to a variety of foods at home," says Maria Guest-Naharnowicz, a food technology teacher at Bexleyheath School, Kent. "Some hadn't tried mangoes, radishes or kiwis before. Getting involved with the project helped to awaken their tastebuds as well as raise their awareness of a healthy diet."

For more information, go to the British Nutrition Foundation: www.nutrition.org.uk; the Food Standards Agency: www.food.gov.uk; EdComs: www.edcoms.com; The Department of Health: www.dh.gov.uk

The balancing act

The British Nutrition Foundation advises you to include the following in your child's lunchbox to ensure they have a balanced diet:

*A good portion of starchy food, eg a wholegrain bap, thick sliced wholemeal bread, sesame pitta pocket or rice salad

*Plenty of fruit and vegetables, eg an apple, satsuma, handful of cherry tomatoes or carrot sticks, mini-can of fruit chunks or small box of raisins

*A portion of milk or dairy food, eg individual cheese portion or pot of yoghurt

*A portion of lean meat, fish or alternative, eg ham, tuna, egg or houmous

*A drink, eg a small carton of fruit juice or bottle of water