Medical scientists at the University of Leicester are urgently tackling a rising tide of teenage dietary problems through an education programme for over 800 secondary school students.
MPs, health and education professionals, sports and fitness experts and local government officials have been invited to a special meeting on 14 June to address some of the practical issues involved.
Poor eating (over-eating, under-eating and bad food choice) is prevalent in teenagers and associated with an increased risk of obesity, chronic disease and difficulty concentrating in school. Sometimes there is confusion about what is healthy and some teenagers just don't care what they eat. Personalised and effective programmes that address attitude and behaviour as well as knowledge are needed.
The project at the University of Leicester is being spearheaded by GENIE Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (NIHR-CLAHRC) for Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland.
The health education programme is called HERO - the Health Education Reaching Out (HERO) Schools Project.
Professor Annette Cashmore, Director of GENIE, said: "With high levels of obesity and rising levels of chronic disease, how can we prevent teenagers becoming the patients of tomorrow? Researchers at the University of Leicester's GENIE Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning are working with over 800 secondary school students to find the answer.
"Eating more healthily and exercising more have been on the government's health agenda for a while and have been the subject of information campaigns. Young people may know what a healthy lifestyle is but this knowledge often isn't resulting in changed behaviour and new and personalised ways of getting the message across are needed."
The Health Education Reaching Out (HERO) Schools Project team is conducting research to find the most effective ways of helping young teenagers make informed choices about what they eat and how they exercise. Using GENIE's schools outreach experience they have developed hands-on and interactive activities to help teenagers reflect on their own habits.
Activities are linked to the school curriculum and address important questions such as 'Why have breakfast?', 'What's in your snacks?' and 'Are you heart healthy?'. Students weigh out sugar and fat to see what is in their snacks they eat, compare the sugar, protein and fibre content of different breakfast cereals, monitor their heart rates during exercise with pulse-measuring watches and try to burn off the caloric equivalent of a few sweets on exercise bikes at the University.
Professor Cashmore added: "This is an exciting and innovative project that will impact on the health education of teenagers in our region and beyond."
HERO started working with schools in 2008 and held events for students to research and develop activities. The students particularly liked the hands-on activities and feedback from students and teachers confirmed the importance of addressing breakfast, snacking and exercise. The project is currently working with three schools in Leicester and will continue until 2013.
Professor Richard Baker, Director of CLAHRC-LNR said: "Improving the health of our young people is enormously important. By bringing together teams of teachers, researchers and clinical staff with different skills and experience, we are able to achieve a lot more than individual teams alone. HERO is a wonderful example of how collaboration between teams can have real benefit."