Striking the right balance with food

Find out why schools, from the primary level onwards, must include food as a subject in their curriculum.

A brief newspaper item carried last month talked about city schools enforcing the importance of eating healthy – that parents had been told to send nutritive packed lunches and educational authorities were giving the thumbs down to food high in sugar, salt and oil content.

The report went on to say how parents are struggling to meet these expectations in the face of their young ones demanding novelty each day. As a mother lamented that her three year old did not like salads and she had no time to pack chapattis or dosas every day, the thought came up: what were schools doing about this issue?

The answer: very little. None of you would be surprised to know that in school canteens what’s being served are the very things they are arguing against. There may be vegetable sandwiches and juice, and in some cases bise bele baath, idli or upma, but in most schools the constants are biscuits, pastries, chips, burgers, pizzas, noodles, samosas and colas. With this kind of easy availability, what do you think a child bombarded by media images of cheesy pizzas, two minute noodles and film stars endorsing colas, would choose?

Eating fast food is ‘fashionable’

A recent study conducted by the Diabetes Foundation of India, involving 1,800 children between the ages of 9 and 18 from four cities, including Bangalore, reveals that for these children eating fast food is ‘fashionable’. A majority of them snacked as they watched television, on the very stuff they saw in the ads. So were the adults being derelict in their parenting? The parents say that their children “just don’t listen”.

In most homes parents do wage wars against beguiling advertisements that promote little else but taste. But the truth is that this kind of talk has barely any effect on youngsters brought up on images that extol processed food.

“I don’t drink all that much…”

How detrimental frequent media messaging can be to young minds, when positive reinforcements are few and far in between, is evident when talking to 11 year old Pavithra. She mentions how a couple of years ago, she saw a film about the effects of cola. “Some bones were kept in a container of cola, after some time they had turned brown and shrivelled up, aunty!” she exclaims. But ask her if she still has cola and she replies with a smile and an unconvincing “I don’t drink all that much…….”

Her friend Priyanka, at 13, is aware about balanced eating and has some knowledge on the food pyramid. Is there a regular class on nutrition in her school? “No, some people from St John’s came one day and told us how much grains, vegetables and such things we should eat.” As for the relationship between food and one’s body, all that this means is an awareness of the social desirability of being skinny. Priyanka thinks “fat is not nice”. And as a plump Pavithra on the threshold of teenage hood put it, “I want to lose weight. I don’t like being like this.”

Attitude to food

We lament about obesity as well as anorexia in our teenagers and the medical fraternity stresses over the growth of lifestyle diseases like diabetes in young adults. But there’s little desire to tackle the root cause, our attitude to food. Yes, reams are being written about eating right. But we keep getting unhealthier while the diet and fitness industry gets larger.

Meanwhile we are also raising a whole lot of economically well off youngsters for whom food remains a guilty pleasure. For most tweens and teens, food talk is restricted to carbs, protein and fats, calorie counts or an obsession with the weighing scale. Food is either a comforter or an enemy. Never something to be savoured and enjoyed in balance.

Food and lifestyle

We overlook the fact that for a generation raised on surplus – income as well as food – striking a balance can be difficult. They need help and we need to facilitate this with steady discussions on food and lifestyle. With the mounting stresses of urban life, little time spent with children and the rise of consumerism, parents have already lost this battle.

Which is why schools must step in. As of now, they appear to be fulfilling some mandatory obligation. A finite number of classes on nutrition/ health has been prescribed and so we have to do it, seems to be the attitude. Would it be stretching the imagination too much to have half an hour devoted to the subject on a regular basis just as for maths, science and language? And by educators who actually want to see children making healthier choices as adults?

Reshma Krishnamurthy Sharma, freelance writer and mother of a nine-month-old feels that a formal education in nutritious eating would help children lead a healthier lifestyle. Reshma says, “Globalisation has made world cuisines come closer home. But the negative aspect is that junk foods too have come closer. It is better to start young and let them know what is good for them in the long run.”

We often talk about overhauling our educational system so that we can produce better professionals. What about healthier people? Even as we strive to better a system that is teaching our children theories and theorems, grammar and diction, all of which will supposedly help them succeed in their lives, we have wilfully swept aside the need to teach them one of the important lessons of life  – how to nurture their bodies.   ⊕

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