Food education must be embedded across curriculum to combat obesity

Media release
12 March 2020

A Deakin University study has found food education makes up just 2.6 per cent of the Victorian primary school curriculum, and its authors are calling for the implementation of a 'whole of school' approach to combat worrying levels of childhood obesity.

Lead author Dr Penny Love – a Senior Lecturer in Deakin's Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) – said the greater value placed on academic achievement than health was a key barrier to the effective implementation of food and nutrition education.

"One in four Australian children are overweight or obese, and schools are a key opportunity for obesity prevention. Good food education is critical in developing one’s food literacy and setting up healthy behaviours for life," Dr Love said.

"But if you're going to achieve good food literacy it needs to be content embedded across the curriculum rather than an ad-hoc additional program. It’s an important life skill."

Dr Love said her study found food and nutrition content was often dealt with ad-hoc with add-ons like life education, kitchen garden, cooking and breakfast programs, typically delivered by an external provider at an additional cost to each school.

"If we’re serious about tackling rising rates of childhood obesity, food education should be integrated across all subjects," she said.

"For example, students could calculate the energy density of foods in mathematics, study food cropping patterns in geography, explore food cultures in history, or debate the role of food marketing in English or media studies.

"We know that this is possible because it's already being done with sustainability and cultural diversity, which are both integrated across the curriculum.

"If you can do it for climate change you could do it for food. Just like saving the planet, or celebrating people's differences, looking after our nutrition is another key skill you need lifelong."

Dr Love's study – recently published in the journal Health Promotion International – sought the views of teachers, and health and education stakeholders about the opportunities and barriers for food education in Australian primary schools.

Barriers identified included limited leadership and coordination, a crowded curriculum, and poor availability of teaching resources with explicit links to the curriculum.

"There were teachers who expressed the sentiment of 'who am I to tell people what to eat?' Teachers were hesitant to discuss food and nutrition issues with their class as they viewed it as a personal choice and were wary of appearing judgemental. They were concerned about parental resistance and some felt they didn't personally model healthy behaviours themselves.

"It shows teachers need adequate support and training to deliver this content and role model healthy behaviours. Integrating food and nutrition into the curriculum ensures consistency of messages across the school, between what is taught in the classroom and what is experienced in the school environment – such as non-food rewards for achievement, and healthy canteen choices."

Dr Love said some work was being done in the UK and US on the integration of food education into school teaching, and this showed that when content was embedded across the curriculum it had the most impact.

"We also heard in our interviews that there is a willingness from teachers, they feel promoting good health in their students is important. So we need to work out how we can support teachers who are feeling overwhelmed, time-poor or under-equipped," she said.

"At the moment we're relying on classroom teachers really driving this area independently, and that only happens if they have a strong personal interest.

"Without the input of teachers and parents, we're in this situation where we're increasingly seeing children grow up into adults without basic food knowledge and skills, like how to buy a healthy basket of food, how to incorporate a variety of fresh vegetables into tasty meals, or how much they should be eating.

"This lack of food literacy is a big contributor to our population's growing reliance on convenience and ultra-processed food, and we know an excess consumption of these is a big driver of overweight and obesity."

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Media release Faculty of Health Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN)

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