Hard to digest

19th December 1997 at 00:00
DIET AND HEALTH. British Nutrition FoundationMinistry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food. Pounds 60

The scares may be new but the treatment remains the same, laments Alan Beattie

Given the media coverage of BSE, E. coli, and the rising tide of anorexia and related eating disorders, few of us will need reminding of the significance of eating for our personal health.

The NHS "Health of the Nation" strategy gives a much higher profile to food as one of the keys to counteracting contemporary killers such as coronary heart disease and cancer.

It was nearly 20 years ago that publications from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) taught health educators that people eat meals (and snacks), not nutrients, and that effective educational programmes help people to assess their patterns of shopping, food preparation and eating, rather than simply put across the science of dietary constituents.

More recently, many health educators have commended the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) for its Food Sense series of booklets, which since 1991 has informed the general public about healthy eating and government measures to ensure the food we choose from shops or restaurants is as "safe and wholesome" as possible.

As MAFF itself has said, it's hard to "find the facts" when we're bombarded with advice from so many different directions.

BNF and MAFF have joined forces for the Food and Nutrition initiative, of which the Diet and Health resources pack is part. Given the previous work of the two agencies, and the substantial investment that has obviously been made in the production of this box of materials, it is a surprise and a disappointment that this new resource reflects an older and retrograde approach: the emphasis is on biomedical science as a basis for nutritional advice and dietary choice.

The pack is intended for use in schools (for individual and group study) with pupils aged 11 to 16. The teacher's guide has a friendly magazine-style format and offers a dazzling array of checklists, cross-referencing, suggested curriculum links, and ideas for using the pack. This guide is essential reading, but will require time and effort to master.

The pack includes information sheets, fact sheets, data sheets and question and answer cards (which offer suggestions for classwork, homework and further follow-up), all designed to transmit basic and up-to-date biomedical knowledge - scientific information about food constituents and nutrient values, and eating trends in relation to the nation's health.

One of the case study sheets introduces "food co-ops" as a way of improving the diet of low-income groups; the other 10 deal with medical topics (such as osteoporosis and heart disease). Two of the stimulus sheets raise issues about food advertising and labelling, and food topics in the media. Otherwise the pack neglects the personal, social, and cultural dimensions of food choices.

The video (mercifully only 12 minutes long) underlines the dry and didactic approach: it is a stilted and implausible saga of four pupils who go in search of nutritional information from a range of experts and other adults.

Diet and Health may be useful for teaching applied science, but it is not at all promising as a basis for effective health promotion.

Alan Beattie is professor of health promotion at the University College of St Martin, Lancaster. The Food Technology pack was reviewed in The TES on November 7

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