Sweet smarts: fighting the child obesity epidemic

by Tracey Burns
Analyst and Project Leader, Directorate for Education and Skills

The Academy Awards have come and gone, treating us to glimpses of the rich and famous – and very thin. Amid the buzz and glamour of this spectacle it can be hard to remember that the stars represent only a tiny portion (literally and figuratively) of our populations.

In fact, the growing rate of obesity is one of the most significant health trends in OECD countries and increasingly, in Brazil, Russia, India and China, the “BRIC” countries.  A just released Trends Shaping Education Spotlight highlights this issue from an educational point of view, with a special focus on children.

Obesity now affects more children than ever before, with one in five children between the ages 5 and 19 estimated to be overweight. The figures are higher for Greece, Italy, New Zealand and the United States, where almost one in three children is overweight. Especially disturbing is the leap in child obesity rates in China, Korea and Turkey, which jumped from 10% or less to 16% or more in only three years.

For those who think that it’s just a phase that children will naturally grow out of, we have bad news. A recent American study demonstrated that overweight 5-year-olds were four times more likely as normal-weight children to become obese by the time they were 14. Although the jury is still out on why this is so, it does suggest that efforts to prevent obesity must start much earlier than they currently do and focus more on the children at greatest risk.

What are some of the ways education can play a role in reversing this unhealthy trend? In general, education and better schooling is a positive – research has demonstrated that additional years of education are linked to a lower chance of being obese. More specifically, education can help:

  • instil healthy lifestyle patterns at an early age and empower children and their families to make better choices for a healthy future;
  • teach children important skills such as delayed gratification, moderation and critical thinking;
  • improve psychosocial factors such as grit, self-esteem, resilience and empowerment.

Health education can teach children the consequences of risky behaviours (such as poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle) as well as improve their ability to gather and interpret health-related information. Education can also help children identify and deal with eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia.

But of course this is a complicated problem, and there are no magic solutions. Reducing junk food in school cafeterias is a start, but challenging negative assumptions and stereotypes that can shape teacher and student expectations is crucial. If we cannot reverse this trend, even simple details like the size of desks, chairs, and yes, washrooms, will need to be rethought.

Many countries have been working hard in their schools to combat obesity, with little improvement to show for their efforts. It must be remembered that education does not exist in isolation. Children are in school for less than half their waking hours, and families, peers, and the community all have important impacts on their choices. Success in combatting this unhealthy trend on a societal level means involving all stakeholders: government, schools, parents, students, civil society and the private sector.

There is one other area where we can do more. Recent research has demonstrated that early intervention matters: overweight 5-year-olds were four times as likely as normal-weight children to become obese by the time they were 14.

Rising enrolments in early childhood education provide an opportunity for such early intervention. High quality early childhood education and care is linked to a host of positive outcomes, including improved child well-being and learning, the reduction of poverty, and increased inter-generational social mobility. It may also be able to help instil healthy eating and physical activity behaviours.

We have a challenge before us. Increasing obesity is not unavoidable. We must do all that we can to keep fighting the trend, and education is one of our best weapons. The health – and weight – of our nations depend on it.

Trends Shaping Education Spotlight No. 2: Body and Society
Center for Education Research and Innovation (CERI)
Trends Shaping Education 2013
Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat
Photo Credit: Attractive Woman Makes A Choice Between Healthy and Unhealthy Foods / @shutterstock 

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