Why you should target children in the fight against obesity
By teaching children to think differently about foods, and get them excited to try new things through preparation and positive introductions, change becomes easy, she says.
“One thing parents don’t realize is the way they introduce foods and talk about foods have an enormous impact on their kids,” Demas says. “They need to rethink how they introduce foods, talk about foods. If they make an assumption that this is an exciting food and it’s going to be fun to cook it, it’s going to bring that excitement to the child.”
Peer pressure in the school setting makes this task even easier, Demas says. Students motivate each other to try new foods outside the home environment where parents may introduce their own food baggage from their childhood that might negatively affect a child’s desire to try a new food.
Demas’ Food is Elementary curriculum is based on the doctoral research she conducted at a school in Trumansburg, New York. She found that as a result of her interventions that introduced 16 nutritious new foods to students, 35% of parents reported positive family eating behaviors at home. Another pilot Demas ran in Florida found that 71% of students reported using the tools they learned in her program at home, and in both programs, 100% of students felt they knew more about foods and were more excited to try new things than before participating in the program.
At another Florida school, Demas was invited by school administrators to develop healthier cafeteria options plus a culinary arts/nutrition program for students. Of the students that participated in her nutrition course, all of them experienced better grades and athletic performance; less aggressive behavior and acne; as well as weight loss by the end of the course. A cardiologist who evaluated the students as a part of the pilot also found that cholesterol rates declined in the students that participated in the program, and that the students saw and average weight loss of 3 pounds over the course duration.
Demas is currently working to have her program adopted and funded by more school districts across the country, and Fredericks will expand her program in the spring to offer a distance-learning version, but in communities without access to their programs, Fredericks says pediatricians should be able to refer families to other local resources that offer tools similar to hers.
Instead of just recommending a healthier lifestyle, pediatricians should point parents to the tools they need to create healthy meals for their families, as well as ways to involve the children and get them excited about healthy foods.
“Pediatricians should look up their cooperative extension or the land-grant university in their state which usually has some free cooking skills education. There’s usually someone in the community that are offering something and there’s a lot of really good books and videos,” Fredericks says. “Nobody makes any successful change unless they have a new skill. It has to come from believing that it is now possible not to fail. I’m not going to start cooking at home if I feel like I’m not going to succeed.”