Children’s Health: Aviva Must Advocates Shared Responsibility

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By Carly Chaapel

On Thursday, June 28, the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition will release Eating Planet–Nutrition Today: A Challenge for Mankind and for the Planet in New York City. Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights a contributing author of Eating Planet, and shares his views on how to fix the broken food system. Tune in on the 28th via livestream: we will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook.

Must calls for shared responsibility for children’s health. (Photo credit: Barilla CFN)

Aviva Must, professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, has conducted extensive research on the effects of obesity on adolescents and pregnant women. In the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition’s new book, Eating Planet–Nutrition today: A challenge for Mankind and for the Planet, she describes the importance of shared responsibility, obesity prevention, and commitment from the agrifood industry for children’s health. Healthful eating habits, she believes, should be encouraged by not only parents, but also schools and health care providers. Action now to promote healthy lifestyles in the youngest children will help alleviate childhood obesity and serious health problems in the future.

Parents are the first people to take responsibility for their children’s health. They control the at-home food selection and dining rules, as well as encourage kids to engage in organized sports and free play. Must describes how “it is useful to think about child feeding as a shared responsibility, with parents responsible for serving food that is healthy and appetizing and children responsible for how much of it is eaten.”

As a supplement to healthy eating habits at home, schools should act as reinforcements for healthy lifestyles. Must points out that a significant portion of meals are consumed at school, and so the meals and snacks provided should make up a nutritious and balanced diet. Schools should ban certain unhealthy foods such as those common in vending machines. They should also bring cooking classes back into the curricula, which promote healthier eating at home, and value quality physical education programs that encourage all students to participate.

Pediatricians can also be reliable sources of education about nutrition and healthy activities for parents. They can ask parents about feeding behavior and counsel them on healthier habits, and they can advise children directly when they grow older. Health care providers should encourage more family meal time and less television usage. For annual weight screenings, Must suggests using the Body Mass Index (BMI) which provides a simply understood number based on weight and height.

According to Must, women should adopt healthier habits before pregnancy and breast-feed their children for weight management. Studies suggest that this will help young children be more receptive to a variety of flavors later in life. Childcare professionals could establish policies for meals, television, and exercise that are clear and enforceable. At home, parents are advised to adopt the US Dietary Guidelines, which recommend a balanced energy intake with physical exercise, consumption of certain nutrient-rich foods such as whole grains and vegetables, and less consumption of foods containing harmful ingredients such as saturated fats and refined sugars. In addition to the existing Guidelines, the government should establish new policies that address sweet beverages, screen time, and physical activity for everyone, even under the age of two.

Though the agrifood industry is driven by an economic incentive that may not reflect the healthiest options, Must urges the industry to adopt a business-wide commitment to healthful products. She does not support supplementing unhealthy foods with added nutrients because this practice makes it harder for consumers to choose truly healthy foods amid a vast shelf of options. Must believes that companies should sell products with fewer calories, more nutrients, and appropriate portions. Marketing of unhealthy products to children should be restricted. If a soft drink company, for example, were to lessen the sweetness of its product, consumers would get used to the new flavor and benefit from the lower sugar content. If the agrifood industry can work alongside parents, schools, and physicians, there is hope for a young generation of active, health-conscious individuals and communities across the globe.

What do you think? How do parents, schools, and physicians in your community take responsibility for children’s healthy eating habits and lifestyles?

Carly Chaapel is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project.

Tune in to the launch on the 28th via livestream: we will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook. You can also purchase your own copy of Eating Planet for $3.99 on Amazon or iTunes.

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