Good Eating Habits Start Early
Parents and teachers are worrying more these days that children's eating habits may not be good enough to keep them healthy. They have good reason to be concerned: adolescents are avoiding certain foods, not eating on a regular basis or eating far too many snacks and/or junk food. These habits will definitely affect both their peer relationships and their success in the classroom.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle has been a constant struggle, but never before has there been a cry for a plan of action to address the nutritional needs of children.
Where should we begin? With breakfast. Breakfast must be made a non-negotiable meal. Many studies have demonstrated the relationship between a good, healthy breakfast and better grades, higher test scores, quicker recall of information, reduced absence/tardiness rates, fewer psychosocial problems, reduced incidence of anemia, and lower special education costs. (Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy, 1998; Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning & University of Minnesota, "School Breakfast Programs/Energizing the Classroom," 1994; Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, Oct. 1996; Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, "The Relationship of School Breakfast to Psychological & Academic Functioning," 1998).
A good breakfast revs a student's metabolism and keeps it going strong. It also makes it less likely that the student will overeat later in the day. Yet, with all this information, 19% of students skip breakfast every day and 40% don't eat breakfast regularly.
Who better to set the example of eating right than parents? They must show their children that we are all "complex machines;" just like a Mazzeratti or Lamberghini, we cannot "run on empty."
Parents/home providers must be aware of the following:
- Breakfast helps to refuel the body after an overnight fast and helps to stabilize blood-sugar levels
- Children must have a proper balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat. This balance can be achieved simply by "stuffing" peanut butter into pita bread
- Students must have a balanced meal in the morning to help them make it to lunch
- Students should start the day with at least two of the food groups and then work their way up the food pyramid
- One can overcome the problem of "not having enough time" by setting the kitchen table the night before and preparing larger portions of food in advance
Our nutritional challenges don't end at the breakfast table. The National Cancer Institute estimates that, on a daily basis, 25% of school-age children do not eat a single serving of vegetables and 50% of children under age 18 eat less than one serving of fruit. Instead, more than 30% of children's diets today consist of unhealthy saturated and trans fats.
In 2002, Education Week reported that one of every four children in the United States is overweight. This is a problem of epidemic proportions. During the last two decades, the number of overweight youths has doubled and the number of overweight teens has tripled. Sixty percent of overweight children ages 5-10 years have one or more risk factors for heart disease or diabetes.
Students who do not get enough exercise and suffer from improper nutrition simply do not perform well academically.
Consider these statistics from the National Association of Secondary Principals:
- Among fourth-grade students, those who have the lowest amount of protein in their diets also have the lowest achievement scores
- Children ages 6-11 years from food-insufficient families (families that report sometimes or often not having enough food) have significantly lower arithmetic scores and are more likely to have repeated a grade
In order to resolve this dilemma, parents, guardians, schools and food providers must ensure the following:
- Nutrition education must be included in the elementary, middle and high-school curriculum
- We must go beyond changing the food in lunchboxes to providing children with the knowledge and skills they need to help them make choices that lead to a nutritious diet and improved health
- Meal providers and provisions must be cautiously selected in both homes and in schools
- Nutritional decisions in homes and schools must adhere to USDA requirements and federal dietary guidelines, including the Food Guide Pyramid
In 1991, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Education Goals 2000 stipulated that "all students will have access to physical education and health education to ensure that they are healthy and fit." It is now 2004 and we are far from reaching the goals that were originally set more than 10 years ago.
Dr. Anhalt has been a professor of education and business at Rutgers University and Douglas College, New Brunswick, NJ; Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA; University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, WI; and Cardinal Stritch University, Milwaukee, WI; and serves on the faculty of International University for Graduate Studies in New York, NY. He is the author of Raise Your GPA 1 Full Grade and is president of Banking on Kids