It’s hard for many kids to resist the tasty temptations – cookies, shakes, French fries, soft drinks and pizza – being offered at their school cafeterias that may not be offered at home, and even some not-so-healthy treats tucked away in their brown-bag lunches.
Those unhealthy eating habits, coupled with the rising rate of obesity among America’s children, have lead the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center, the U-M School of Public Health and Ann Arbor Public Schools to come together to teach students a very important lesson: how to lead a heart-healthy lifestyle to reduce their future risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Their effort, Project Healthy Schools, will begin this fall in one Ann Arbor middle school to educate students on how to make better eating and lifestyle choices.
As part of Project Healthy Schools, the school’s vending machines will be updated to offer healthier snack and beverage choices, and lunchroom menu options will reflect a heart-healthier approach. Plus, the project will emphasize the importance of physical activity.
If Project Healthy Schools proves to be a success, Kim Eagle, M.D., the clinical director of the Cardiovascular Center at the U-M Health System, hopes the program will become a prototype for other schools to follow across the country.
“We know that if students exercise and eat right, they perform better in school,” he says. “They feel better, they have a better body image and they live longer, healthier lives.”
Currently 22 percent of children in the United States are considered obese. These children may face a host of health concerns, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, often at a young age. And what’s really alarming, Eagle says, is that as many as a third of new diabetics are children between the ages of 10 and 20, which increases their risk for cardiovascular disease later in life.
And obese children tend to grow up to be obese adults who are more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol – all risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
“Nearly half of our citizens die of cardiovascular disease,” says Eagle. “So if we design a situation where parents are creating a heart healthy environment at home, it will set their children up for a much better cardiovascular future.”
That’s why Project Healthy Schools not only focuses on children, but also on parents so that children can have help in making healthy food and exercise choices at home. Parents can also help by packing a lunch for their child that contains healthy doses of fruit, vegetables and legumes, instead of a lunch full of high-fat or high-carbohydrate snacks.
At school, the project’s goal is to encourage students to do at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week. This is done by working exercise into the students’ normal curriculum.
“We hope to find ways to build cardiovascular prevention into the students advisory time, health time and even science classes,” says Eagle. “This can help the students learn those disciplines and recognize behaviors in their lives that are likely to be long-lasting. It’s a win-win situation.”
Another unique aspect of Project Healthy Schools is the relationship it builds with food and beverage vending machine companies and the school’s food management services to implement heart-healthy nutrition changes for student lunches, says Theresa Han-Markey, MS, RD, in the Human Nutrition Program at the U-M School of Public Health. As a result, students will see improved vending options and healthier food offered in the a la carte line of the cafeteria.
“Food and beverage vending machines contribute to overweight and obesity when children eat or drink too much,” she says. “So smaller portions, less frequency of eating these types of foods can help, and so can teaching children to eat in moderation or making better choices can improve their overall nutrition intake.”
In addition to having healthier food options available, Han-Markey says Project Healthy Schools will incorporate a 10 to 15 minutes education session into each week to show students how to make good nutrition and food choices, and incorporate physical fitness into their lives.
By targeting middle school students, Project Healthy Schools hopes to encourage healthy adult behaviors during a time when pre-teens and teenagers begin to experience other changes in their lives and establish life-long habits.
“If we can take advantage of that moment to see them establish life-long behaviors, both toward what they eat and their physical activity, we’re hoping it will last into their adult lives,” Eagle says.