Education a key to tackling obesity

August 6, 2014, Victoria University

There is of course no single factor that has led to New Zealand being one of the most obese nations in the world—it is a multifaceted problem involving social, cultural and economic forces interacting in a variety of ways. But, having acknowledged the complexities of the problem, equipping individuals to make positive and healthy choices through high quality education, clearly can make a difference.

Over the last six years, the government has removed many of the established programmes and policies around healthy nutrition and activity, contributing to a reduction in quality education and in the ability of New Zealand students to make positive lifestyle decisions around food and activity.

One decision that has received considerable attention is the reversal of policy that previously required schools to offer only in their canteens and, at the same time, restricted the sale of unhealthy food. While actively encouraging young people to eat fat and sugar-loaded foods seems a strange way for a government to address the problem of obesity, this is not restricted to New Zealand. Republicans in the United States (US) have announced they will follow a similar policy and roll back the limited restrictions on selling unhealthy foods in US schools that were introduced by President Obama. This decision has been encouraged by the US$140 million spent by food lobbyists worried about falling profits and has been made despite the fact that since President Obama's restrictions took effect, there has been the first recorded dip in obesity levels for young American children.

In New Zealand, the rather predictable consequences of the changed canteen policy, the removal of the successful healthy eating healthy action programme for schools and removal of the fruit in schools initiative have been discussed in a variety of forums.

But discussion on obesity is often underpinned by the belief that this is a simple issue of personal discipline and self-control. Right wing blogger Cameron Slater, for example, attempted to dismiss Colin Espiner's recent criticism of government policy by saying Espiner didn't understand that it is "the fat bastard stuffing their gobs that is the fault and cause of the so-called obesity epidemic". One of the major problems with this self-responsibility argument is the uncomfortable reality that many people simply do not have the knowledge, understanding and personal experiences to make positive lifestyle choices. If individuals are to be held accountable for their decision-making, they should at least be sufficiently educated to allow them to make reasoned and rational decisions.

Health and is the one learning area in the New Zealand curriculum that has a specific emphasis on equipping students with the knowledge and understanding that allows them to make educated choices around health and wellbeing. It would seem sensible, when considering the implications of New Zealand's growing lifestyle-related problems, to place a greater emphasis on this learning area, especially in primary schools where many of our lifestyle habits are developed.

What has tended to fly under the radar is the decision made in 2009 by then Minister of Education Anne Tolley to disestablish all primary school health and physical education advisory positions. The advisors supported primary teachers throughout New Zealand to implement holistic programmes addressing a myriad of issues around well-being including healthy nutrition and the importance of regular activity and movement. The disestablishment of these positions has meant the loss of an important support for primary teachers attempting to educate students in these areas. It also sent a very clear message to the education sector that literacy and numeracy are the only learning areas that are valued.

Quality education programmes are not the silver bullet for the health problems of New Zealand. They do, however, have an important role to play in preparing students to make reasoned decisions based on knowledge, understanding and positive personal experiences.

The present government policy seems to be to remove programmes that can help educate students around health and nutrition; to emphasise numeracy and literacy to the exclusion of all other learning areas and to ensure that schools are full of chips, pies and doughnuts. It is disingenuous of this government to then blame individuals for making poor decisions when they have removed the very means by which individuals can learn to make reasoned educated choices.

Quality education offers a major opportunity towards developing a healthy society. While the investment in health and physical education in primary schools will not have an immediate and measurable result, it will have a long term impact in the future. Concentrating on numeracy and literacy, on the other hand, may mean that people can accurately calculate their steadily increasing body mass and probably write a succinct summary of their health problems but is this really the future we want for New Zealand?

Explore further: Experts highlight big gaps in healthy food policies

Related Stories

Experts highlight big gaps in healthy food policies

July 30, 2014
Healthy food policies to promote childhood health and reduce obesity are lacking, according to a report highlighting the policy priorities assessed by an expert panel of more than 50 New Zealand public health professionals, ...

Parents of overweight kids more likely to give schools failing grades for fighting obesity

May 20, 2014
Parents – especially those of overweight children – give schools a failing grade for efforts to encourage healthy habits that combat childhood obesity, according to a new poll from the University of Michigan.

Many schools are neglecting students' health and wellbeing, warn experts

May 13, 2014
Many schools in England are neglecting – and may be actively harming - students' health and wellbeing, warn experts in an editorial published in BMJ today. Professor Chris Bonell at the Institute of Education and colleagues ...

New Zealand failing in obesity prevention

September 12, 2013
A disinvestment in obesity prevention and failure to enact any major healthy food policies is contributing to New Zealand's worsening obesity statistics compared to other OECD countries, according to researcher, Professor ...

Recommended for you

Evening hours may pose higher risk for overeating, especially when under stress, study finds

January 16, 2018
Experiments with a small group of overweight men and women have added to evidence that "hunger hormone" levels rise and "satiety (or fullness) hormone" levels decrease in the evening. The findings also suggest that stress ...

Bariatric surgery prolongs lifespan in obese

January 16, 2018
Obese, middle-age men and women who had bariatric surgery have half the death rate of those who had traditional medical treatment over a 10-year period, reports a study that answers questions about the long-term risk of the ...

Sugar-sweetened drinks linked to overweight and obesity in children, adults: Analysis of new studies

December 23, 2017
A new review of the latest evidence on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs)- which includes 30 new studies published between 2013 and 2015 (and none of them industry sponsored) - concludes that SSB consumption is associated with ...

As income rises, women get slimmer—but not men

December 21, 2017
(HealthDay)—A comprehensive survey on the widening American waistline finds that as paychecks get bigger, women's average weight tends to drop.

Policy and early intervention can curb obesity rates

December 18, 2017
More information and emphasis on dietary lifestyle changes that prevent obesity, and its comorbidities, have not reduced the rise in obesity in U.S. adults and adolescents, according to a recent study in the New England Journal ...

Warning labels can help reduce soda consumption and obesity, new study suggests

December 15, 2017
Labels that warn people about the risks of drinking soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages can lower obesity and overweight prevalence, suggests a new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 07, 2014
Parents should remember that it is also their sacred duty to bring up healthy children. Sometimes parents concentrate their attention only on the grades and the results. They want their children become the best but they raise unhealthy and unhappy people. I feel Ok about using some online services like this one for preparing some papers but inspire my kids leave their rooms and go outdoors to ride a bike or something like this. You know, there are not so many teenagers who do it now. And who can control daily menu if not parents. So let`s remember about the responsibility.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.