When it comes to healthy eating habits, prevention is better than cure. That’s the takeaway from new research led by Senior Professor Anthony Okely from the University of Wollongong’s School of Health Early Start program, which aims to understand and promote healthy eating and physical activity among children.
The research focuses on two age groups; newborn to age 5 (the first 2000 days of a child’s life) and school-age kids.
Working in collaboration with the Health Promotion Services at Illawarra Shoalhaven, South-Western Sydney Local Health Districts and the Centre for Population Health, the Food and Movement Research Theme from Early Start co-developed, implemented and evaluated several projects in early childhood education and care services, including family day care and outside of school hours care settings.
Working towards change
‘Our overarching goal has always been to better understand and promote healthy eating and physical activity in areas where children live, play and learn. As researchers, we don’t want to just work on papers; we want to have an impact,’ said Professor Okely.
‘At Early Start, we’ve been analysing healthy eating and movement habits, both at home and in family day care and out-of-school environments, and then, alongside our research partners, formulating guidance for parents and educators to implement them most effectively.’
There’s no doubt that early childhood educators – whether in family day care or centre-based care – have a massive impact on healthy habits during the first 2000 days of a child’s life.
Georgie Tran, an Early Start researcher and a PhD candidate in the School of Health and Society, created a research project together with Dr Erin Kerr on Family Day Care (FDC), exploring the quality of their healthy eating and physical activity policies and environments.
‘We found that in FDC, most children don’t meet their vegetable intake and only half of the children participate in enough physical activity for their age. For example, an average two-year-old should be physically active for at least three hours a day,’ said Ms Tran.
The bad news
Nationally, nearly a third of young children’s dietary intake comes from discretionary foods, such as sweet and savoury pastries, crisps, biscuits, processed meats etc.
Australian children’s eating habits are not different to 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 several good patterns have also been discovered.
Dr Erin Kerr said, ‘In family day care services, we observed that 99 per cent of 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 wider range of food groups than sandwiches or wraps.’
Another significant area of Early Start research has concentrated on school-aged children in the Outside of School Hours Care (OSHC) sector.
OSHC centres are vital for promoting healthy behaviours, as 32 per cent of NSW children attend these services after school, and these numbers are only set to increase.
Room for improvement
Collaborative research led by UOW PhD candidates Dr Ruth Crowe and Andrew Woods found much room for improvement in the provision of healthy foods in OSHC settings.
Their research discovered that although after-school services offered fruit almost every day, discretionary foods were provided more often than healthier snacks in the form of vegetables, lean meats and milk, and yoghurt and cheese.
Another PhD candidate, Linda Patel, is developing a smartphone app for educators working in the OSHC sector. It features healthy recipes, menu planning and policy templates, and has had very positive feedback from educators so far.
The app is being launched and tested in fifteen day care services this month.