Nutrition education for early childcare staff key to preventing obesity in preschoolers

In a paper published this week in the journal Public Health, Centre for Longitudinal Research and Growing Up in New Zealand PhD student Sarah Gerritsen outlines the evidence-informed components of education environments that work to prevent obesity.

The paper calls for greater emphasis on education about nutrition and its long term health implications for all staff working in Early Childhood Education (ECE) centres.  

The research draws on information about ECE services in New Zealand and England which have similar mixes of service providers along with some of the world’s highest rates of childhood overweight and obesity (33% in New Zealand and 29% in England).

Typically ECE teacher training programmes in both countries include, at most, a few hours on nutrition; while there are no mandatory qualifications or nutrition training requirements for centre cooks. The main sources of advice for child nutrition in both countries are non-governmental health promotion organizations such as the Children’s Food Trust in England and the Heart Foundation in New Zealand.

Sarah says that regardless of whether ECE services provide food, all staff, either consciously or unconsciously, impart norms about eating and food to the children in their care.

“Whole of environment approaches have been found to be the most effective for obesity prevention in childcare settings,” says Sarah.  “This means that all aspects of policy, food provision, staff practice and teaching, as well as communication with families and the wider community, must work together to support and reinforce healthy eating behaviours.

“Managers, teachers and cooks all need a sound knowledge and understanding of the reasons and mechanisms behind health promotion messages and the confidence that what they do makes a difference to children’s dietary patterns and food preferences.”

The article concludes that while many centres in England and New Zealand have taken steps to build healthy environments, these are voluntary and under-resourced. It advocates for appropriate nutrition education to be made available to all ECE managers, teachers and cooks to ensure the widespread improvements in all ECE settings that would equip children to live long and healthy lives.

Gerritsen, S. Nutrition education for early childhood managers, teachers and nursery cooks: a prerequisite for effective obesity prevention (2016). Public Health, doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2016.05.025

The author is receiving a University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship and a postgraduate scholarship from Gravida: National Centre for Growth and Development.