Most parents would be ecstatic to hear their children ask for a healthy snack instead of ice cream, cookies, or soda when they come home from school. A child and adolescent nutrition education program from Virginia Cooperative Extension has made this dream a reality for many parents throughout the commonwealth.
Elena Serrano, assistant professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise, and nutrition specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension, developed Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids, a research-based program to educate youth about smart nutritional choices. More than 10,000 Virginians, ages 7 to 14, have learned about positive attitudes and behaviors involving diet, physical activity, and body image from this program in an overarching effort to reduce overweight among youth across the state.
Extension had an ideal structure in place to integrate Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids into the lives of children and youth. Family and consumer sciences (FCS) agents were already providing nutrition education in many counties, and 4-H youth development agents were assisting children and adolescents in developing life skills. In addition, many paraprofessionals with the Virginia Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and the Smart Choices Nutrition Education Program were available to teach from the curriculum.
“This program would not be possible without the agents in their local counties,” Serrano says. “Many of them already have partnerships with middle schools, 4-H clubs, after-school and before-school programs, and camps, where they can bring the Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids curriculum to those who need it.”
Local educators who have adopted the program in their communities report success.
“We had parents tell us that their kids were asking them for fruit for the first time,” says Cynthia Rowles, 4-H youth development agent for Middlesex County. When Rowles was a 4-H agent in Frederick County, she and Julie Shelhamer, family and consumer sciences agent, partnered with the county recreation department several times to bring Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids to the local youth.
“It is such a rewarding experience to show youth how much sugar is in a can of soda and explain how they can improve their diet,” Rowles adds. “The program was definitely a success in Frederick County.”
Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids focuses on six key areas:
In the curriculum, these areas are part of lesson plans with matching titles: smart foods, smart choices, smart drinks, smart snacks, smart activities, and smart image. The “smart” is designed to help local educators understand that diet and physical activity are linked with academic achievement.
“Kids perform better when they have a healthy diet,” Serrano says. “And children who are more vigorously active have better grades on average.”
“Both 4-H and FCS agents wrote the activities with Elena’s leadership in the content area of nutrition and my leadership in the educational design of the curriculum,” says Kathleen Jamison, assistant professor of 4-H youth development.
“I teamed up with the 4-H agent in our county to implement Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids in one of the local schools,” says Marilyn Morris, FCS agent and unit coordinator for Gloucester County. “In our county, we focus on food choices, MyPyramid, smart drinks, and smart snacks. We also combine the materials on physical activity and body image to meet the needs of our local youth.”
The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that childhood and adolescent overweight – along with eating disorders – has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Recent data shows that almost one out of every five children aged 6 to 19 is overweight. Virginia is no exception. Quite to the contrary, studies show that the frequency of weight problems among youth in the South exceeds the national average.
When Serrano discovered these startling numbers, she began searching for a curriculum that might alleviate the problem in Virginia. She examined several educational programs around the country but did not find one that taught proper nutrition and physical activity to children and adolescents. This prompted Serrano to conduct a needs assessment to find the knowledge areas warranting the most attention. Based on these results, Serrano determined the six key areas and developed Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids.
Serrano knows that excessive weight in children can lead to numerous physical and emotional complications. Children who are overweight are more likely than their peers to suffer from a long list of health problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, and sleep disorders. Overweight and obese adults with diseases such as type 2 diabetes often demonstrate risk factors that can be tracked back to childhood. Virginia has the fastest growing rate of adult obesity in the entire country, with an estimated $1.6 billion per year in medical expenses attributed to obesity in adults alone.
Serrano is still compiling information about how well Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids can improve dietary practices and curb childhood overweight. A 2005 study has already indicated that the program has a strong positive impact. According to the study, more than 300 fourth and fifth grade participants in Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids reported significant improvements in nutrition and physical activity knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors.