Forget history, teach kids about calories

A Big Mac has 540 calories; a medium order of fries will get you 380 calories.
By Jan Paul Schutten

What good does it do to teach children that 1492 was the year Columbus discovered America? Better to teach them that it is the number of calories in two Big Mac's with medium-size fries and extra ketchup.

When you have your health you have everything, the saying goes. Why is it then that our schools teach almost nothing about healthy eating? How many children know how many calories are in a glass of orange juice or how much Vitamin C is in an apple?

The American food expert Brian Wansink once calculated that the average American takes 200 food-related decisions every day. Wouldn't it be helpful then if we actually knew which foods are fattening and which are not, or which products contain vitamins? If we were able to estimate how many calories we take in with a particular meal, or how many calories we burn with a particular activity?

It pays to eat healthy

British researchers who followed a group of 11,000 food-conscious people for a period of 17 years found that their mortality rate was 21 percent lower than average. People who eat healthy don't just live longer, they live healthy lives for longer too. In short: it pays to eat healthy.

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There is a very simple way to save money on health care: introduce a half hour of food education in schools every week. The first results will be visible after a few years; in the long term they will be spectacular. Better food education will considerably reduce the risk of heart disease as well as cancer and diabetes.

But will more knowledge about healthy food automatically lead to a more responsible lifestyle? Yes, it will. How many parents give their children fruit juice instead of soda on the assumption that it contains fewer calories? In reality fruit juice often contains more calories than soda and only very few vitamins. How many parents fail to give their children enough fruit and vegetables with the excuse that they just don't like it?

The latter is nonsense, of course. Researchers at Cornell university in the US gave people in a movie theatre large containers of free popcorn without telling them that the popcorn was five days old and tasted of Styrofoam. The test persons dutifully ate their free popcorn. Both children and adults will eat almost anything when they are watching TV or a movie. If people are prepared to gobble down bad popcorn, wouldn't they be just as happy eating cauliflower or carrot sticks in a yogurt dip?

Obesity

If people know how many vitamins or how much energy a product contains, they will be more inclined to pay attention to what they eat. Whenever I give a reading for at a school, I have the children eat potato chips, then we all run around the classroom just as long as it takes to burn off the extra calories.

Most people know surprisingly little about food. A few lettuce leaves are often their only source of vegetables, and they don't realise you would have to eat an entire head of lettuce to get the recommended vegetable intake. How many people don't reward themselves after a workout with a snack or a soda, unaware that in doing so they have actually consumed more calories than they have just burnt off?

It gets worse. Zoos often get letters of complaint from visitors who witnessed a snake being fed a mouse or a rat. "Couldn't you have given it sausages instead?" they ask, apparently unaware that animals are killed in the process of making sausages too.

The number of obese children is still on the rise, and they are getting younger every day. Obese children more often than not turn into obese adults. The clock is ticking. Dutch food minister Gerda Verburg gave the example in 2008 by setting aside an extra 8 million euros for food education. But if you ask the teachers they will tell you that little has changed in practice. Often the teachers themselves are to blame: they have other priorities.

The ball is now in the court of the education minister. There are excellent teaching models available for schools. 'Food ed' should be made compulsory across the board. It is about time that 1492 no longer reminds of when America was discovered, but of the number of calories in two Big Mac's with medium-size fries and extra ketchup.

Gepubliceerd in:
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