India, which is still dealing with the problem of malnourishment, is also fighting the obesity menace. In fact, after China, India has the most number of obese children at 27,481,141 or 27 million, far ahead of the US, which is at 17 million. Most of us assume that we know what is best when it comes to food, both for ourselves and our families. Contrary to this belief, obesity and associated chronic diseases (also known as non-communicable diseases) remain on an upward trajectory for both adults and children.
According to an ICMR-INDIAB study, Type 2 diabetes, which mostly affected the age group of 30+, is becoming more common in children as young as 12 years old. The prevalence of overweight and obesity in children is 15 per cent. For those studying in private schools catering to upper-income families, the incidence has shot up to 35-40 per cent, indicating a worrying upward trend.
These findings indicate an increased consumption of junk food and unhealthy food choices in addition to the lack of physical activity. Unfortunately, we are not taught the nuances or the pros and cons of our food choices at home or in schools. Only as adults do we learn the enabling of knowledge, skills and behaviour to plan, manage, select, prepare and eat a healthy diet.
Laying the foundation of food literacy at home
Eating behaviours and food preferences that develop at a young age can last throughout childhood and into the adult years. Food literacy is vital for the early establishment of healthy dietary behaviours. Creating opportunities for children to learn about food and its nutritional values is the start to adopting a happy and healthy relationship they’ll have with eating. By learning where food comes from, how it’s grown, produced and prepared, children develop the ability to understand the complex world of food around them. Studies suggest that dietary preferences learned in early childhood often stick with a person all the way to adolescence and adulthood. They’ll grow up to become conscious consumers and mindful eaters, aware of the impact of the choices they make. Food education inspires and equips children to support their own health and the environment.
Children learn about their food likes and dislikes by direct contact with foods, such as through tasting, feeling, seeing, and smelling, and also by observing their food environment, for example, the eating behaviours of others. Sensory-based food education can start at home. It gives children opportunities to use all their senses to explore and experience food. It uses real food and a wide variety of learning activities and experiences, such as music, games, language, art and creative play.
Food fussiness is known to peak between the ages of two and five years, so encouraging young children to eat fruits and vegetables often proves to be rather tricky. The one thing that makes any child more likely to eat and accept a new food is simply repeated exposure. Encouraging children using taste exposure and experiential learning strategies in a positive and supportive environment can promote familiarisation and liking of unfamiliar foods. Eating meals together, including them in the kitchen, and teaching them about the benefits of individual ingredients in an engaging way and not just as an imposition, are also proven methods to reduce their food avoidance behaviours, for example, when a child does take a bite or taste a new food, don’t ask them if they like it, ask them what it tastes like, ask them to describe what they just ate. Steer them away from sorting foods into the “yuck” or “yum” categories.
Teaching food and nutrition in schools
In a recent IPAN study health and education stakeholders and teachers were asked what they felt about integrating food and nutrition into the school curriculum – and why it wasn’t being done. Stakeholders and teachers all agreed that food education is important to establish healthy habits early. They also all agreed that food and nutrition should be embedded through all learning areas. The study also highlighted that the integration of food and nutrition throughout the state board school curriculum is a policy issue, and will require collaboration and leadership between health and education sectors. Currently only a handful of private schools in tier I cities have included nutrition studies in their curriculum. The schools focus on educating students about calorie count in food items and will organise workshops with nutritionists.
Insufficient intake of vegetables in children remains an area of concern for parents, educators and public health agencies. In order to improve children’s nutrition, it is important that they learn about food and nutrition and also develop a healthy relation with food. Experiential learning at home and nutrition education in schools at an early age are vital to expand the child’s knowledge, awareness, and willingness to ditch junk food and adopt a healthier lifestyle.