With our growing obesity problem in New Zealand we have seen the introduction of a number of food guidelines being issued to schools. This has included advising parents on what should be allowed in lunch boxes and what can be sold in tuck shops.

This has frustrated many parents who believe it is not the schools role to tell them what they can and can’t send to school in the lunch box and that schools shouldn’t regulate what can or can’t be bought.

Schools are also concerned that it is another issue that they have to be responsible for when it is not part of the core curriculum.

I can appreciate both the schools concerns and the fact that some parents do not want or appreciate these guidelines. Perhaps though we need to consider why these approaches are being recommended by the powers that be.

This is a population based strategy and its aim is to improve the health of the nation. We all know that we are faced with an obesity crisis in New Zealand. The more we can limit weight issues for our children then the better health outcomes they will have when they are older.

The 2002 National Children’s Nutrition Survey showed us that 31% of our children are either over weight or obese. If we look more closely 62% of Pacific children and 41% of Maori children were either overweight or obese.

The sad fact is that if you are overweight as a child you are more likely to be overweight as an adult, especially if you are overweight between the ages of 10-18 years. Sadly it also seems that as a society we are slowly becoming used to seeing bigger children. It can be hard for some parents to recognise and accept that their child is at risk of a future weight issue because they look similar to their peers.

It is critical to try and prevent weight issues sooner rather than later.

This is where population based approaches have an important role. Today many foods that children eat or drink every day are not actually ‘every day foods’ as they are too high in fat or sugar. By discouraging their use this helps to convey the message that it is not good to eat these foods all the time.

It is when our children are young that good habits can be instilled in them. It is never too early to start teaching them good health messages and it is often by our actions rather than our words that they learn the most. I have recently done some talks at different primary schools and I have been impressed with the knowledge that our young children have towards healthy eating. The school food guidelines all help to cement that knowledge and help to slowly bring about change.

At home with my own children I have also observed how school messages are brought back and shared with the family. If the child can help convey health messages to parents then this is another way that the message gets through.

These population based strategies obviously don’t appeal to everyone as it is seen as another rule we have to live by. We know that at some secondary schools children are getting around the rules by going to food outlets outside of the school. When new things are introduced it always takes time for things to settle down. I would like to think that when my children get to secondary school this approach is seen as the norm rather than the idea that it is yet another constraint placed on us all.

If it helps to change attitudes and knowledge is it really bad thing? If it helps to slow down our obesity epidemic is it a bad thing? Another positive spin off might also be that our children can concentrate better as they have had healthier choices over the day.

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Fiona Boyle is a registered dietitian and nutritionist. She runs a private practice and gives nutrition advice to individuals and families to help meet their health needs and personal goals.

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