Pupil health and wellbeing: why teach about food?

17 Oct 2016

While 1 in 5 children aged 5-15 years are overweight in Northern Ireland, and a further 7% are obese (Healthy Survey NI, 2014/15), there is also an issue of inadequate micronutrient intakes in teenagers, as well as other subgroups, such as ethnic minorities and lower socio-economic groups. Dietary survey data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) shows that teenage girls (11-18 years) in particular are below the Lower Reference Nutrient Intake (LRNI) for a number of micronutrients. For girls and boys this includes iron, riboflavin, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iodine.

It’s also interesting that within some population groups, physically inactive individuals have been found to have poorer quality diets, including lower micronutrient intakes. Those who are physically active most usually consume a greater amount of energy to achieve energy balance, compared to those who are sedentary. The reduced amount of food required to match low energy expenditure may make it more difficult to achieve adequate micronutrient intakes.


Ultimately, we need to ensure a good range and variety of foods in the diet, including foods from all food groups. While the focus may well be on reducing energy intake (and arguably increased energy expenditure), this must not be at the expense of micronutrients which are needed for health.

The new Eatwell Guide continues to promote the variety and balance message. Fruit, vegetables and starchy carbohydrates continue to form the bulk of our diets, along with a variety of foods from the ‘protein’ and ‘dairy’ food groups.

When the contribution that different food groups make towards those nutrients where there is a low intake and/or status, it can be argued that the balance and variety message needs to be promoted further. For example, the following food groups contribute ≥ 10% of intake:

  • Cereals and cereal products: Riboflavin (22%), folate (27%), vitamin D (13%), iron (39%), calcium (31%), magnesium (28%), potassium (15%), zinc (25%), selenium (27%), iodine (11%);
  • Vegetables and potatoes: Vitamin A (32%), folate (26%), iron (17%), magnesium (16%), potassium (24%), zinc (11%);
  • Milk and milk products: Vitamin A (14%), Riboflavin (28%), calcium (36%), magnesium (10%), potassium (11%), zinc (15%), iodine (33%);
  • Meat and meat products: Vitamin A (16%), Riboflavin (17%), vitamin D (30%), iron (21%), magnesium (15%), potassium (18%), zinc (35%), selenium (32%), iodine (10%).

Positive education contribution

Education can play an important role in supporting positive public health messages, helping our young people reflect and think about the diet as a whole. Our challenge is to support positive behaviours with food, helping them apply knowledge and skills to make good informed choices. So, at school this needs to start with reflection on the key knowledge and skills that our young people need today, in our modern society. If the vision is to help reduce free sugars intake, increase fibre, add more fruit and veg and achieve a balance and variety of all foods, how is this going to be achieved? While obesity may well be taught, it is less likely that the issue of current micronutrient deficiency is covered. We need to consider how we, as food educators, can support and have an impact.

One simple approach would be to reflect and review current schemes of work, lesson plans and learning objectives to the following questions:

  • Do they reflect the new Eatwell Guide, supporting balance and variety of foods?
  • What skills are being taught, helping young people put together delicious and nutritious meals?
  • Considering the micronutrients of most concern, are these covered in theory and practical cooking lessons?
  • Are some ingredients and food groups more dominant than others? If so, why?
  • What is the proportion of savoury to sweet?
  • Overall, is it supporting pupil health and wellbeing?

Another consideration, especially for pupils who do not take food as an option at GCSE, is the food skills and knowledge they receive in their time with you. If this is there only formal food education for life, will it enable them, for example, to plan meals, apply nutrition, keep to a budget and cook meals? It’s always good to reflect on one’s own practice – ensuring that lessons keep pace with the changing needs of society and the young people we teach.

With the recent revamp to Food4Life, and ongoing commitment to support teachers in NI, there are a range of resources to help support you – from focusing on key skills, creativity, budgets, recipes and healthy eating. It’s all just a click away!

The future

We all have a role to play in supporting the health and wellbeing of young people. As food educators we have a unique opportunity to ensure that the future generation have the skills and knowledge to make informed decisions – now and in the future. They will need to understand about a range of food issues which may play a bigger role in their food choice in the future, such as provenance, sustainability and budget, as well as apply their nutrition knowledge in meaningful ways to live happy, healthy lives. We want them to enjoy their food and be empowered. Together we can make a difference.

Roy Ballam

Managing Director and Head of Education

Roy Ballam, BNF - 17 Oct 2016

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