Better Choices for Children

U of A expert wants to educate kids on why they should make healthy decisions, not just how

photography by Daniel Wood, hair and makeup by Amber Prepchuk

When a neighbourhood has soccer pitches, baseball diamonds, basketball courts, playgrounds and green spaces, does it guarantee that the community is healthy? Is it a place where families choose to be outside and engage in physical activity?

The answer to that is no: The facilities give families the chance to exercise, but those opportunities need to be taken. And the fact is, research shows that more and more young people are choosing to be sedentary — and their parents aren’t necessarily urging them to get off their smartphones and get on their bikes.

So, are our kids healthy? Or rather, do they know enough about nutrition and exercise to make healthy choices for themselves?

Dr. Sangita Sharma, a University of Alberta expert on nutrition, led a study that looked at 557 Edmonton Public School kids: 120 were aboriginals, 230 were new Canadians, and 207 were non-aboriginal and non-new Canadian. The goal was to get a large, representative sample of kids going to school in Edmonton, whether they were in poorer neighbourhoods or the wealthier communities in the city.  

The draft report is the first phase of Sharma’s study, and was supported by the Public Health Agency of Canada and Alberta Health Services. The study found that 17.6 per cent of the kids were overweight and 9.1 per cent had obesity issues. Sharma emphasizes that these are preliminary findings. But, while the numbers aren’t great — indicating that nearly one in five EPS kids is overweight — they are certainly better than what we are seeing from the United States. The most recent National Survey of Children’s Health in the U.S. found that more than 31 per cent of kids were overweight or obese.

Looking at the draft numbers from Sharma’s work, we can say this: In a time when we should be more educated about the benefits of exercise and healthy eating than any other point in human history, our kids are gaining weight.

Or, is the amount of nutrition information out there being drowned out by the heavy advertising and marketing campaigns by the packaged-food companies?  

In 2011, Edmonton Public Schools banned its schools from selling pop, sodium-laden potato chips or chocolate bars in its cafeterias or vending machines. The Edmonton Catholic School District has a nutrition policy on its books, which states: “Foods and beverages sold or served at school will support healthy eating choices. Foods will be from the ‘Choose Most Often’ or ‘Choose Sometimes’ categories as outlined in the Alberta Nutrition Guidelines for Children and Youth.”

The “choose sometimes” guideline is applied to food products that should only be consumed a maximum of three times per week because they are high in sugar and salt. 

But banning the sale of junk food and sugary drinks does little good if the kids simply choose to buy them at convenience stores within walking distance of their schools. 

Sharma says the issue is that kids simply aren’t educated on why certain foods are better for them than others. They drink a lot of soda and sports drinks, but don’t understand that, for the same money — or sometimes less — they can choose chocolate milk or regular milk. They are eating a lot of sodium and fat, and not getting enough fibre or calcium. They don’t eat enough eggs, and Sharma says that the protein found in eggs is vital to children’s development.

When the new school year begins in September, EPS and ECSD will look to address what Sharma calls the “inadequacies” in kids’ diets. Schools will provide information on how kids can make healthier choices that are also practical. Sharma says that, if a kid cuts back one caffeinated sports drink a day — each of which can cost $3 or more — not only is the student cutting sugar intake, but saving money as well. 

“What the program will do is show kids the importance of breakfast — that it’s easy to make a smoothie, the importance of eggs. It will show that it’s easy to prepare a good lunch and snacks.”

This second implementation phase is being supported by AHS, the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, the Alberta Diabetes Institute and the Alberta Diabetes Foundation.

However, that education needs to go hand-in-hand with physical activity. And, for kids, that means being able to go out and play. It means neighbourhoods that offer kids chances to engage in physical activity.

“Definitely, there is not enough time devoted to physical activity,” says Sharma. “There is too much time spent on cellphones, on handheld devices. Kids now have so many entertainment choices, and the Internet, that promote non-physical activity.”

She says that even getting out to the playground will offer the weightlifting needed to increase bone mass. Running, swimming, climbing or swinging a baseball bat — these are all things that help build the body. 

“And we know that being involved in sport also builds confidence,” she says.

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