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Research Newsletter-Spring/Summer 2012

Simone Frei, M.P.H., M.A.


Simone Frei, M.P.H., M.A.
Program Coordinator
Healthy Youth Program

Providing public education to promote optimum health and prevent disease has always been a major commitment of the Linus Pauling Institute. Our educational efforts have been mainly focused on adults. We recently decided to reach out to our youth as well, to make an impact on their health. Hence, we developed the Healthy Youth Program in 2009 in response to the declining emphasis on nutrition and physical education in our schools and the alarming increase of childhood weight problems in the United States. The goals of the Healthy Youth Program are to provide educational and activity programs to school children and their families to instill healthful diet and lifestyle habits in our youth, thereby helping them maintain a healthy body weight and prevent the chronic diseases of adulthood.

Micronutrient Intake in Elementary School Children

HYP Questionnaire

Our micronutrient intake study assesses the dietary intake levels of all vitamins and essential minerals, as well as the vitamin D body status, in a cohort of elementary school children in Corvallis, Oregon. To date, 172 children have completed a validated food questionnaire (Block Kids Food Questionnaire), and a subset of 71 children completed a vitamin D blood spot test from ZRT Laboratories in Beaverton, Oregon. Preliminary data indicate that 70% of children had serum vitamin D levels between 21 and 30 ng/mL and 13% had levels below 20 ng/ mL, considered insufficient and deficient, respectively. None of the children met the recommended intake levels for vitamin E and linoleic acid, and only one child met the Adequate Intake (AI) for potassium. Very few of the children met the AI for alpha-linolenic acid and the recommended intake level for fiber. Seventy-six percent of children aged 5-8 years and 92% of children aged 9-11 years, respectively, did not meet the recommended intake levels for calcium, 40% and 61% for magnesium, 40% and 54% for phosphorus, and 22% and 44% for vitamin A. Most children met the recommended intake levels for the B vitamins and vitamin C.

While we still need to collect and analyze more data, these preliminary results raise serious concerns about the nutrient intake of children even in affluent and well-educated communities. The low dietary intakes of calcium and magnesium, together with low vitamin D status, may have detrimental consequences for bone health, both in the short term (failure to mineralize growing bones and achieve peak bone mass) and long term (osteoporosis). There is a critical need for tools that help parents and health professionals assess the nutritional status of children and provide guidance to improve their nutrient intakes, including improved diet and use of dietary supplements.

Childhood Nutrition and Exercise in Elementary Schools

Our study, Childhood Nutrition and Exercise in Elementary Schools, examines elementary school teachersí needs, knowledge, concerns, and barriers regarding nutrition education and physical activity in elementary schools and also assesses school cafeteria staffís knowledge and attitudes towards childhood nutrition. Confidential and anonymous surveys have been administered to 227 elementary school teachers and 59 school cafeteria staff in public elementary schools in Oregon. Results indicate that the majority of Oregonís classroom teachers see a need to provide nutrition education to elementary school children, but they expressed great concern about time and budget restrictions. Competing academic expectations and lack of a suitable curriculum limit the time that teachers can spend on nutrition education. Parents and school cafeterias were perceived as important to improve the efficacy of a revised nutrition curriculum. Most teachers were interested to learn a new nutrition curriculum; however, money was a potential limiting factor for training. Cafeteria staff also see a need to improve the eating habits of the students and want to get involved with nutrition education. However, time and training are limiting factors.

We also found that most teachers would welcome more physical activity breaks for children during the school day. The teachers are willing to be part of the solution and want to learn more about ways they can incorporate physical activity breaks into their daily classroom schedule.

K-5 Nutrition Curriculum

Based on the results of the above described study, we are developing a K-5 nutrition curriculum, as well as an exercise DVD. Our curriculum will reflect the core tenets of LPI regarding healthful diet and lifestyle and will be divided into three age-appropriate segments: a) kindergarten and 1st grade, b) 2nd and 3rd grades, and c) 4th and 5th grades. We believe that a successful nutrition curriculum needs to be engaging and tied to other academic areas in school, making its content more meaningful and applicable. This will allow the teachers to incorporate the curriculum into their lesson plan as an academic enrichment. Therefore, our curriculum will include many hands-on activities that relate to math, science, and English language skills.

playing soccer

Exercise DVD

With the help of a group of exercise and sports science students at Oregon State University, we are developing a DVD with different segments of physical activities that can be done in a classroom setting.

Since many classroom teachers are not trained in exercise instruction or may be uncomfortable demonstrating exercises to their students, they may prefer to use this DVD to provide physical activity breaks. The exercises demonstrated in the DVD will include stretching, yoga, strengthening, flexibility, and aerobic moves, such as jumping in place. Sports exercise students will demonstrate the exercises with music in an engaging and fun way, while media students are responsible for producing the DVD

Cooking Fun & Play

We have partnered with KidSpirit to offer Cooking Fun & Play, an after school program for elementary and middle school students. KidSpirit is a program in OSUís College of Public Health and Human Sciences aimed at improving the skills, lifestyle, and social development of children of all ages, abilities, and cultural backgrounds.

The main objective of Cooking Fun & Play is to teach children the importance of a healthful diet, familiarize them with preparing healthful meals, and increase their level of physical activity. Since many experts agree that health-related behaviors are developed during childhood, we believe our program will have a lasting impact on these childrenís health into adulthood.

On two afternoons per week, students learn about the importance of healthful eating, such as the benefits of eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and substituting whole-grain foods for refined-grain foods. Students also learn to identify which foods are healthful and which foods should be consumed in moderation or avoided, especially highly processed, calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods.

Through hands-on teaching, the students learn to follow a recipe and cook their own meal, develop cooking skills, plan a menu, and put together a grocery shopping list. We teach the children how to cook meals that are not only affordable but also healthful and nutritious. Parents and guardians are encouraged to participate in the cooking sessions so that these skills can be implemented into the familyís daily routine to improve the dietary habits of the entire family.

On the other two afternoons per week, students participate in physical activity games that are non-competitive, donít require athletic skills, and are designed to attract those children who typically avoid competitive or recreational sports. Students also participate in weekly swim lessons and learn about water safety.

To Grow Box

We have partnered with the Corvallis Environmental Center to expand their gardening education program for low-income families, the To Grow Box, to include an interactive and engaging nutrition education component. Participation in this program is free. The expanded To Grow Box will educate families on how to grow their own vegetables, the importance of eating a healthful diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, how to cook nutritious and healthful meals with fresh produce, and how dietary habits affect health and well-being.

children cooking

The To Grow Box is a six-week program that is offered in the summer at the SAGE Community Garden in Corvallis. The program will provide families with the knowledge and skills to plant their own vegetable garden and to incorporate fresh produce into their meal planning. Families will be provided with recipes that are not only healthful and nutritious but also affordable and tasty. Every week, families will take home a box full of fresh produce harvested right from the garden. Childcare will be provided and children will be encouraged to participate in the gardening and cooking. In each class, families will work in the garden, harvest the produce, prepare and cook a meal, and end the day eating dinner together in the garden.

Nutrition education will be provided in an informal and interactive way while the families are preparing dinner. Families will be encouraged to ask questions and will be given the opportunity to meet individually with our nutrition educator to discuss their familyís health behaviors. Families will also receive a binder with nutrition information, resources, and recipes, including the ones prepared in class. After the completion of the program, participants will be provided with a box filled with gardening supplies to start their own vegetable garden. Follow-up for technical garden support will be available to participating families for up to one year.

Last updated May 2012