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New School Lessons: Eating Healthy

We hear a lot about the obesity epidemic in the United States, especially among children and adolescents. However, the impact that school meals have on childhood weight and overall health has been overlooked. A piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year looks at five creative ways schools can encourage students to eat more healthily. These interventions have been formulated to help schools meet the guidelines under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

 

Intervention One: Product Placement

Salad bars that feature at the front, or in the center, of a school lunch line are much more likely to attract students. Some Maryland elementary schools opened all-you-can-eat salad bars that featured five different fruits and five different vegetables a day and saw the number of students buying salad go up. In fact, one study found that strategic placement of vegetable options can increase consumption by as many as five times. Other schools planned the timing of vegetable snacks, so that hungry students were more likely to reach for them before a meal.

 

Intervention Two: New and Improved Advertising

Changing children’s preferences can be as simple as slicing up fruits for those with orthodontic appliances, or using more colorful bins to display fruits at lunch. “Stealth nutrition,” according to the WSJ piece, can also come in the form of food names that appeal to a young crowd (e.g. “X-Ray Carrots or Turbo Tomatoes.”) Attention-grabbing cartoon stickers on fruits can also increase consumption.

 

Intervention Three: Tracking Real Consumption

This is an intervention that can reduce waste, and at the same time, determines which foods are popular with students and which are not.  Researchers at some Chicago elementary schools recorded what foods were purchased and thrown out in order to determine the relative popularity of certain food groups.

 

Such measures can also increase parental involvement: some schools send home weekly report cards that record what a child ate throughout the week, based on lunch swipe summaries. Instead of remaining in the dark about what their children eat at school, parents can talk with their children about their meals or even compensate for missing nutrients at home.

 

Intervention Four: Bring in the Experts

Children can’t be expected to enjoy food that adults would also avoid. Chefs can consult for school menus or cook directly in schools. Over time, partnerships with chefs and local food sources can have a big impact.

 

Intervention Five: Field Trip!

Nutrition education should not have to be boring. In fact, it absolutely should not be, since a child’s first impression of a food item is crucial. Some elementary schools have started taking students on field trips to local farms, teaching ways of sustainability along with familiarizing students with new fruits and vegetables. They encourage students to make note of how a fruit smells, or what color a vegetable might be.  In NYC, the Wellness in School Program encourages students to make healthy choices for themselves based on what they observe in the fresh produce and nutrition labels they encounter.


 

The Truth About Headphones

Consumers are always looking for the latest technology even when it comes to the latest audio equipment. As of late, there has been a lot of debate about the safety of headphones and earphones, and how they affect our hearing ability. A recent New York Times article discusses what this means for children’s headphones and music listening today.

 

According to a 2015 report, half of 8- to 12-year-olds in the U.S.listen to music daily, as do nearly two-thirds of teenagers. Unfortunately for them, Dr. Papsin, the otolaryngologist interviewed in the article, said “Headphone manufacturers aren’t interested in the health of your child’s ears.” Products are advertised to be noise-cancelling, “safe for young ears,” or provide “100 percent safe listening.” However, recent studies of the kinds of earphones on the market found that some of them were so unsafe that they damaged ears within minutes of producing loud music.

 

In a study to determine the relative rankings of the many kinds of earphones and earbuds available to children, researchers used two types of sounds. They used a recently released pop song and compared it to “pink noise” (usually used to test the output levels of equipment, according to the article), and found that playing the chosen pop song at maximum volume made it more likely for headphones to exceed healthy decibel levels than they did playing pink noise.

 

This means that music that adolescents prefer to play generally produce loud sound at high volume, and is impacting boys and girls alike. The gap in hearing loss rates between boys and girls is decreasing, with the rate of girls’ hearing damage catching up to that of boys. Experts agree that no headphone can replace the most effective means of controlling damage, which is adult supervision. Some practical advice from pediatricians include: “If a parent is an arm’s length away, a child wearing headphones should still be able to hear when asked a question.” In other words, according to Dr. Jim Battey, the director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, “if they can’t hear you, ‘that level of noise is unsafe and potentially damaging.’”

What Junk Food Does to Your Brain and Why Kids are Fighting Back to Get Healthier

 

We know that potato chips and sodas are addictive, but have you ever wondered about the science behind junk food? It turns out that junk food is actually as addictive as it is harmful to the body. Neuroscientists interviewed in The Atlantic found that foods like Oreos can be as addictive as psychoactive drugs, if not more so.  They discovered that “high-fat, high-sugar foods are stimulating the brain’s [pleasure centers]” in the same way that drugs can. A 2010 study cited in the article confirmed the addiction phenomenon when they fed lab rats bacon, sausage, cheesecake, and frosting for 40 days. With brain imaging, the researchers found the rats’ resulting brain activity to resemble that of cocaine and heroin addicts.

What does this mean? For children whose dietary staple may include snack foods, they may become conditioned to expect and crave junk food at an early age. This exacerbates the picky eating problem we discussed last week, and also contributes to other very real problems in children’s health like obesity.

Even though young children may be the targets of advertising companies who spend a fortune on researching methods to make junk food even more irresistible, study shows that teens are fighting back. Researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Texas studied methods to help teens beat advertisers at their own game. Instead of “focusing on a future, healthier you” that seems abstract, these researchers introduced teenagers to an “exposé” article highlighting the manipulative methods of food industry executives and consultants as they strategized to get young people to eat more unhealthy food. In this way, choosing to eat healthy food became an act of rebellion against a socially unjust system of “controlling, hypocritical adults” that was conspiring to keep teens unhealthy.

Explaining to students about the importance of healthy food was just not enough. Students who read the expose article were more likely to associate healthy eating with autonomy and social justice. The success of this study suggests that teenagers and young students want to exert more control over their own health because they strongly associate their health with their independence. If anything can beat chemical addiction, it could very well be a student’s willpower to take charge of their own health.

Read a more detailed summary of this study here.