When it comes to healthy eating habits, prevention is better than cure
Back in 2017, the University of Wollongong (UOW) received an early start grant of US$1.25 million from the Ministry of Health’s Health Prevention Research Support Program (PRSP) funding. This grant allowed Early Start researchers, led by Professor Anthony Oakley of the College of Health and Society, to initiate a collaborative research program aimed at understanding and promoting healthy eating and physical activity among children in two age groups: newborns through 5 years of age. (the first 2,000 days of a child’s life) and school-age children. This year, PRSP funding has been extended for another four years.
Working in collaboration with Illawarra Shoalhaven Health Promotion Services, Southwest Sydney Local Health Districts and the Population Health Centre, the subject of Food and Movement Research from the early on has been involved in the development, implementation and evaluation of several projects in early childhood education and care services, including family day care and outside care settings outside school hours.
“Our overarching goal has always been to better understand and promote healthy eating and physical activity in the areas where children live, play and learn. As researchers, we don’t want to work only on papers. We want to make an impact,” said Professor Oakley.
“Early onset, we were analyzing healthy eating and movement habits, both at home, in family day care and out-of-school environments, and then, along with our research partners, formulated guidelines for parents and educators to implement them more effectively.”
Professor Tony Oakley and his team conducted research on healthy eating and physical activity guidelines for children
There is no doubt that early childhood educators – whether in family day care or center care – have a significant impact on healthy habits during the first 2,000 days of a child’s life. Jorge Tran, an Early Start Researcher and a PhD candidate in the College of Health and Society, along with another recent PhD student Dr. Irene Kerr, co-created a research project on Family Daycare (FDC), to explore the quality of their healthy food and physical activity policies and environments. .
“At the FDC, we found that most children do not get their vegetable intake and only half of children participate in adequate physical activity for their age. For example, an average two-year-old should be physically active for at least three hours a day. Today,” Mrs. Tran said.
Nationwide, the bad news is that nearly one-third of young children’s nutritional intake comes from discretionary foods, such as sweet and savory pretzels, chips, crackers, processed meats, etc.
The eating habits of Australian children are no different from other parts of the world. Similar patterns have been identified in other countries, such as the United States, Mexico, and Switzerland.
However, Early Start researchers are optimistic, as many good patterns have been discovered as well.
“At family day care services, we noticed that 99 percent of the children were provided with fruit, which is really encouraging! We also found that mixed dishes, such as dhal and spaghetti bolognese, were more likely to have a greater range of food groups than sandwiches or wraps,” Dr. Kerr said.
Another important area of early start research has focused on school-aged children in the out-of-school care (OSHC) sector. OSHC centers are vital to promoting healthy behaviours, with 32% of NSW children attending these after-school services, and these numbers are only set to increase.
Collaborative research led by University of Wollongong doctoral candidates Dr. Ruth Crowe and Andrew Woods found significant room for improvement in the provision of healthy foods in OSHC settings. The research discovered that although after-school services offer fruit almost every day, discretionary foods are served more often than healthy snacks in the form of vegetables, lean meats, milk, yogurt, and cheese.
Research is now being conducted by another PhD candidate, Linda Patel, to develop a smartphone app for teachers working in the health insurance sector for foreign students. The app, which features healthy recipes, menu planning and policy templates, has received positive feedback from educators so far. It is scheduled to be launched and tested on 15 services next month, in July 2022.
Crowe RK, Probst YC, Norman JA, Surber SE, Stanley RM, Ryan ST, Vuong C, Hammersley ML, Wardle K, Franco L, Beets MW, Weaver RG, Davies M, Innes-Hughes C, Okely AD (2022). Food and beverages in out-of-school care services: an observational study. BMC Public Health 22: 227. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-022-12652-9
Kerr, E.M., Kelly, B., Hammersley, M.L., Hernandez, L., Norman, J., Furber, S., Vuong, C., Ryan, S., Wardle, K., & Okely, A.D. (2020) . Foods offered to children in family day care: an observational study. General Health Nutrition, May. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980021001506