Helping eating for kids

Two years ago, Jenny O'Dea set herself a tough challenge: to persuade her one-year old daughter, Katherine, to eat a salty, black olive. The little girl took a small bite, Jenny and her husband cheered and applauded loudly, and Katherine grinned and ate the whole thing.

"I was proving the point that, with positive reinforcement, kids will eat almost anything," she says.

Jenny O'Dea has a long-standing interest in children and young people when it comes to what, and how much, food they consume. An Associate Professor in Health Education and Nutrition Education in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, she's the author of Everybody's Different: A positive approach to teaching about health, puberty, body image, nutrition, self esteem and obesity prevention , a new book which draws on her 17 years of research. In it she sets out school-based obesity prevention programs that, she says, "are certain to benefit and do no harm to otherwise weight-sensitive young people".

"A lot of people think that supporting overweight kids condones obesity, but it doesn't. Firstly, overweight is not the same as obese; secondly, we need to take a 'whole-child' approach, with special focus on a child's self-esteem," she argues. Early results from her latest study of 9,000 school children nationally indicate that class activities promoting self-worth dramatically reduce the onset of negative body image thinking.

Professor O'Dea has had a drive to educate and work with young people as long as she can remember. "I asked for a blackboard for my seventh birthday, and was miffed when Mum bought me a kiddie one. I wanted a proper one like my teacher," she explains.

Her own education was broad: after growing up in a small country town and completing an arts degree at Riverina College in Wagga, she studied postgraduate nutrition and dietetics at Sydney University and then did a Masters in Public Health Education at the University Of California, Berkeley. "That was a bit traumatic because I knew no-one in the whole of America, and none of my fellow students understood my Australian sense of humour."

After returning to Australia in 1989 to take up a lecturing position at the University of Sydney, her work with young people inadvertently directed her towards her current area of study - the prevention of body image problems and eating disorders among children and adolescents.

"When I returned from the US, I behaved like a good little nutritionist and began studying iron deficiencies and anaemia in teenage girls. But the girls in my focus groups only wanted to talk about how they hated their bodies and by what means they could lose weight. I thought to myself 'I'm going to have to study what they're interested in'," she explains. Inspired by the girls' concerns, she completed a PhD in Medicine in which she focussed on nutrition, health, body image and self-esteem.

Six years ago, her research took her back to the United States. Professor O'Dea and her family spent 18 months in California where she was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley. But not everything went to plan.

"We were there for September 11. People - the whole country - were in a state of shock for a month. Then they needed to talk about it for a month. I ended up authoring several papers alone because my fellow researchers were incapable of doing any work for two months," she explains. But she and her family were affected as well - they stopped going to shopping malls, and they avoided crowded places. "We even stopped crossing the Golden Gate Bridge".

Back in Australia, life is quieter - which, she says, is partly due to her ability to work from home at Bulli in the Illawarra, where at weekends her whole family work as volunteer lifeguards.

"We make sure no-one drowns on our watch. I've rescued two girls who'd fallen into deep water and would certainly have drowned if I hadn't been there," she says.

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