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Increasing Healthy Behaviours around Schools in Asia

Published on 05 March 2018

As childhood obesity is strongly associated with obesity in adulthood and its comorbidities, it is important to equip children with the knowledge and skills for leading a healthy lifestyle, by creating an environment in which healthy choices are the easy choices.

This can be delivered via interactive nutrition education programmes, in which children would understand the basic experiences of food, health and nutrition, and be empowered to take responsibility for their own wellbeing in the long term.

Following the inaugural dialogue on Partnerships to Promote Healthy Eating and Active Lifestyle at the Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development 2017 in Singapore, the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN), together with the Health Promotion Board (HPB) and Save the Children, hosted a roundtable dialogue on 1 March this year, to discuss ways of Increasing Healthy Behaviours around Schools in Asia. The dialogue gathered stakeholders from academia, civil society, industry and government, to address how various sectors can collaborate on initiatives that drive nutrition literacy, to build a supportive environment that promotes healthy lifestyles among children in Asia.

School settings are recognised as an ideal and crucial starting point, to help children acquire basic knowledge in the areas of food, nutrition and health, which can be carried through adulthood. In his presentation, Mr Terence Ng, Deputy Director of Policy and Strategy Development Policy under the Research and Surveillance Division at HPB, shared about the different programmes rolled out by the Singapore government, aimed at raising a generation of healthy eaters. He cited the example of government efforts to improve the quality of food in Singapore’s educational institutions, through the implementation of a combination of solutions, including nutrition education within the school curriculum, guidelines for canteen food products, as well as the training of cooks and canteen vendors for better nutritional quality of food sold in schools.

Ms Sarah Bramley, Save the Children’s Director of School Health and Nutrition, shared about her organisation’s efforts, as a non-governmental organisation (NGO), to improve health and nutrition in schools. An example is Save the Children’s School Health and Nutrition Programmes, which have been implemented globally. The organisation, she added, works with governments, community members and children through initiatives such as the empowering of school clubs to promote healthy eating behaviours, as well as the facilitation of access to community-based health, nutrition and childhood development services.

During the dialogue session, the importance of nurturing healthy eating habits from a young age was iterated, in order to ingrain notions of a healthy living in children.

“For instance, it is important to introduce wholegrain products from young,” Mr Ng said. “Currently it is hard to change the Singaporean palate which has already been established, with our familiarity with white rice.” He highlighted the need to make healthy meals with less fat, sugar and salt, replacing them with healthier options such as wholegrains, fruits and vegetables.

Key to the discussion, extended to dialogue participants, was how to extend nutrition education beyond the school setting, in order to culminate in and bring about actual behaviour change. Ms Ratih Neumann, Cargill’s Director for Regulatory and Scientific Affairs (Southeast Asia and India) , highlighted that while children are the agents of change, the success of nutrition literacy also depends on external influences, such as culture and environment.

Recognising the pivotal role parents play in the lives of their children, Mr Ralph Graichen, Director for Food and Nutrition at the Agency of Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) Biomedical Research Council (BMRC), emphasised the importance of including parents in the nutrition education process, to reinforce what is taught in the classroom in the home. This includes the importance of children’s participation in the actual food preparation process, and consuming breakfast before going to school. “Schools teach it, but the parents and children have to live it,” Mr Graichen said.

Ms Nimrta Kaur Sandhu, Manager, Schools Partnership, School Health & Outreach Division at HPB, shared a common complaint from parents concerning the lack of time to cook and eat at home, compared with the affordability and convenience of dining out. “Such a culture is deeply rooted within the ethos of our society,” she said, highlighting the need to change the mindset of parents from the beginning. Others echoed the significance of reaching out to caregivers, who play a big role in the lives of children in the region.

Given consensus on the importance of a supportive environment to encourage healthy lifestyles, the need for a multi-pronged approach was emphasised throughout the discussion. However, participants noted, there is also a need for programmes to be self-sustaining in order for long-term change to be effective.

“The government will provide the initial push working with industry, but eventually the end goal is a virtuous cycle of demand generation,” said Mr Ng. “We hope to have intrinsic, in-built knowledge and demand for healthy foods and products, which encourages the industry to provide a line-up of healthier ingredients, products and meals.”

One way of increasing demand for healthier meals could be to improve the taste of healthy food, which Mr Ng said could be the next phase of innovation to focus on. Others suggested ways to improve engagement and internalisation of health messages, by leveraging on technology through the increased influence of visual media and game applications.

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