Getting a pass in nutrition - but still passing the crisps

29th May 2015 at 01:00
Learning about food doesn't change bad habits, study finds

Lessons in healthy eating teach children everything they need to know about good nutrition - but make barely any difference as to whether or not they put it into practice, according to new research.

Children prefer the foods they are brought up eating at home, regardless of how much they are taught about what is and is not healthy, the study finds.

Since 2013, "instilling a love of cooking" in primary pupils has been a compulsory part of the national curriculum. In September last year, cookery lessons were made mandatory, with the aim of teaching children where their food comes from, and how to cook and eat healthily.

But, in findings that may stick in the throat of healthy food campaigners such as Jamie Oliver, a new Russian study (bit.lyHealthyEatingReport) concludes that pupils' awareness of the importance of healthy eating and exercise has little impact on whether they follow through on the advice.

Alexandra Makeeva, of the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Education, studied the effects of nutrition education on 729 children aged between 8 and 12. Roughly half the children were given lessons in healthy eating and the importance of exercise; the other half were not.

Varied menu

Dr Makeeva found that - unsurprisingly - the level of awareness about what constitutes good nutrition was higher among those who had been offered the lessons. These children were better able to answer accurately questions about diet regimes and rules of hygiene than their counterparts who had not been given any nutrition education.

Dr Makeeva then asked the children to tell her what their favourite food was. The lists were almost identical for children who had been given lessons in nutrition and those who had not.

The most popular types of food among both groups were potato dishes, soup, pasta, meat dishes and sweets. None of the children ate enough fish, fruit or vegetables.

"Thus nutrition education did not radically change the typical food preferences among children," Dr Makeeva writes, in an article in the latest edition of the journal Education and Health. "The most favourite food is determined mainly by social and economic characteristics of families - presence of particular types of products on a family menu, family culinary traditions and so on."

She also found that most of the children lived largely sedentary lives, whether or not they had been taught about the importance of regular exercise.

"They give most of their time to learning - lessons at school, homework at home - as well as watching television programmes or web activities," Dr Makeeva writes. "Morning exercises, sport and walking are less popular." Education activities, she adds, have not broken this trend.

Dr Makeeva did find some benefits to studying nutrition at school. Children who had continued with these lessons for three years were half as likely to eat junk food as those who had not received any nutrition education.

And children who had received three years of nutrition education were less likely to skip meals - specifically breakfast and an afternoon snack - than those who had not taken any healthy-eating classes at all.

But Dr Makeeva concludes: "Training does not develop taste preferences of schoolchildren.and the special nutrition education did not change the key characteristics of children's lifestyles."

Taste sensation

Lucy Chambers, a scientist with the British Nutrition Foundation, which works with schools around the country, was not surprised by the findings.

"Information provision on its own is not likely to have much of an effect," she said. "Obviously, the home environment is what it all stems from - what you learn, from the weaning stage, has an enormous effect on your food preferences.

"However, it's not only about information - it's about what children are eating at school, at lunchtime and breaktime. It's about giving them cooking skills, gardening skills, understanding where their food comes from. It's about generating an environment where there's a positive attitude towards food. Those things combined will have an impact."

This is backed up by a recent study published by the Cochrane Library. This found that healthy-eating interventions that included three elements - classroom study, changes to schools' ethos and engagement with families - were likely to have small but positive effects on pupils' eating habits and physical health.


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