February 3, 2011
Every five years, the United States Departments of Human Health Services and Agriculture jointly release the Dietary Guidelines for America in the hopes of encouraging every American to eat a healthy diet, however, chances are the average person will never set eyes on the report. As a former teacher and observer of arguably the most unhealthy generation in American history, I look at this document and immediately think, “How can I ensure that the crucial messages buried in this bureaucratic document will be delivered to the children and parents who need to hear it?” While the objective is to provide Americans with a guide to a healthy eating pattern, the recently released 2010 Dietary Guidelines places a heavy emphasis on the fact that a “guide” is no longer enough and lays out a “Call to Action” to help Americans make healthier choices. Much of that “Call to Action” should be aimed at our nation’s schools where the foundations of healthy eating and living are often built.
As a high school teacher of a low-income urban school in Richmond, California, I witnessed the front lines of the childhood obesity epidemic as it manifested itself in real time. I also observed the interactions between the food environment (the elements of our surroundings that influence what we eat) and my students’ choices. Often that food environment was exemplified by a lack of access to healthy affordable food, the ubiquity of corner stores and fast food locations and a school food environment filled with competitive foods and pre-prepared food service meals.
What I saw among the majority of my students was a lack of any active engagement with the food system that was supplying their daily calories. Nutrition was no longer taught at the school, there was no school garden, there were no health professionals (nurses) other than psychologists to help with counsel students regarding family and violence issues. Other than the few immigrant families that had home gardens to supplement their food purchases, students were either handed food or food was purchased with little thought about their consumption in a meaningful way.
The new Dietary Guidelines recognize this fact. Chapter 6, titled, “Helping Americans make healthy choices,” opens by stating, “Today, Americans must make these choices within the context of an environment that promotes overconsumption of calories and discourages physical activity. In fact, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines’ Call to Action includes three guiding principles, all of which are absolutely essential for our schools and communities to develop over the next decade. They are:
1. Ensure that all Americans have access to nutritious foods and opportunities for physical activity
2. Facilitate individual behavior change through environmental strategies
3. Set the stage for lifelong healthy eating, physical activity and weight management behaviors.
Being a teacher, I immediately look at these principles and the way they apply to our school environment. What the Dietary Guidelines are telling us (and they actually state it) is that our schools need to be empowering our students and families with “improved nutritional literacy, gardening, and cooking skills to heighten enjoyment of preparing and consuming healthy foods.”
The question is why aren’t we teaching our kids how to cook? Why aren’t we engaging our students with food production and while it’s happening, talking about the nutritional benefits of healthy food. Look at Figure 5-2. Why aren’t students analyzing food nutrition labels and charts like these and talking about why our processed foods have so much added fat, sugar and salt. Then they could discuss common sense purchasing decisions that can be made in order to be healthy. But those duties have been relegated to whom? Parents? Advertisers? Providence? New research is telling us that the influence that parents have on their children’s eating habits is weak, pointing to the complex social and physical environment and our children’s interactions with it. Institutions, like our schools need to stop being a passive participant or even a negative influence on our children’s eating habits and start being a positive influence, potentially strengthening the influence of parents again. I view these basic skills as an investment in future health for families and our nation. (To view a school-cooking project in Baltimore, click here and in New York City click here)
Most initial reporting on the new Dietary Guidelines has been positive; even the experts are surprised at the way the administration has put getting control of the obesity epidemic on the front burner. In a recent Washington Post article, Marion Nestle, the distinguished professor of Nutrition at NYU states, “I never would have believed they could pull this off…The new guidelines recognize that obesity is the number one public health nutrition problem in America and actually give good advice about what to do about it: eat less and eat better. For the first time, the guidelines make it clear that eating less is a priority.”
Just looking at the differences in the table of contents from the 2005 guidelines to the 2010 guidelines you can see a significant shift. In 2005, one third of the chapters related to specific nutrients (fats, carbohydrates, sodium, potassium) while in 2010, a third of the chapters are about developing healthy eating patterns and helping Americans make better choices. Just from that first glance a reader gets the sense that the 2010 document is much more accessible for the average American, with real common sense advice about how and what to consume, in place of confusing statements using nutritional jargon. Now, this isn’t to say that the document does not cover in depth the scientific and nutritional backing of their guidelines nor that the nutritional jargon is gone, but the document appears more approachable. In addition, for the first time the general message is first and foremost to eat less. In the very first sentence of the executive summary the document states, “eating and physical activity patterns that are focused on consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices, and being physically active can help people attain and maintain a healthy weight…”
Not many Americans end up reading the Dietary Guidelines, but they are important for shaping many of the food programs that our government delivers. And in the sense that our government must know what needs to be done before they can actually help individuals accomplish these changes, this is a step in the right direction.