Creating environments that keep your weight down

How can you let children and young people eat healthier?

Most schoolchildren would rather eat French fries and rissoles than wholemeal bread and fruit. Nutrition expert Jaap Seidell is working with supermarkets, schools and local councils to find out how youngsters could be persuaded to eat healthier food.

“We are lookingjaap-seidell into what people eat, where they eat, and why they choose fast food or sugary drinks, for example, rather than fruit and vegetables. We go to supermarkets, child day-care centres, and schools and we look at what happens when we intervene. For instance: do children really drink fewer sugary drinks if the school installs water fountains?”

For years Dutch governments and health organizations have been trying to lower the percentage of overweight children and adults, thus far to no effect: almost half of the population is currently overweight, and 14% is medically obese by current health standards. In children up to the age of 17, 13.5% are overweight and 2.8% are obese – with all the problems that this brings, including low self-confidence and a greater risk of vascular disease and diabetes. National and regional prevention plans have generally been futile, because for many interventions it was unclear whether they had the desired effect.

Canteen scan
“We set up experiments and examine the extent to which these measures have the desired effects.” says Seidell. “Not by asking people what they ate that day, because many people find it difficult to keep track; instead we find out – through businesses or supermarkets, for instance – how much more of the healthier foods they have been selling, after we’d promoted them.” To monitor how well Dutch canteens are meeting the Netherlands Nutrition Centre guidelines, the research group designed an online 'Canteen Scan' that encourages schools, businesses and sport clubs to give regular reports of the canteen food on offer.

Academic performance
Seidell is also looking at the health effects: what do these kinds of interventions do for children’s weight, sleep patterns, and academic performance? To this end the group is working together with other Amsterdam knowledge institutes, the city council, and health organizations in Sarphati Amsterdam, a research institute for lifestyle-related disorders. The participating health workers are asking parents whether they might use anonymized data about their children, in order to be able to analyse changes in their weight, health, and illness.

Naturally, such interventions also have to be affordable, and fit the culture of the participating organizations. A healthy canteen that goes bust because the children simply go and buy sweets and chocolate at the nearest supermarket is little consolation. Seidell, who is also a co-director of Sarphati Amsterdam, is therefore keen to involve all stakeholders in these experiments. “For example, we’re now trying to persuade councillors to put a 25% tax on sugary drinks in Amsterdam,” he says. “This is the kind of thing that local government can do. A sugar tax was introduced in England this year after some progressive councils, like Liverpool, were able to show that it actually does lead to lower sugar intake.”