Schools not the place to wage war on obesity
The University of Auckland's Dr Darren Powell is shocked the Ministry of Education has appointed anti-obesity, public health researcher Grant Schofield in an education role
COMMENT: Last week the Ministry of Education announced it had appointed Professor Grant Schofield as the first ever Chief Education Health and Nutrition Advisor.
The reaction on social media was mixed. Those who advocate the ‘low carbohydrate, high fat’ (LCHF) diet were overjoyed, with one Twitter user announcing, “LCHF ENTERS THE NZ GOVT SYSTEM – OFFICIALLY”.
Other nutritionists, dieticians and obesity experts were less thrilled, with one critic expressing concern that the new appointee’s stance on nutrition is “in conflict with the current Ministry of Health recommendations on Diet and Nutrition”.
The response from a number of researchers and teachers in health and physical education – the learning area that focuses on food and nutrition - was one of shock.
Some were shocked because they were unaware such an appointment was about to be made, which hints at the low level of consultation that took place creating this position and making the appointment.
Others, including myself, were shocked that the Ministry of Education has appointed an anti-obesity, public health researcher in an education role, rather than someone who has an in-depth understanding of education – in particular, health and physical education.
One of the key roles that Schofield has been tasked with is "to provide valuable advice around the design, integration and implementation of the curriculum". Yet he seems to have little experience, if any, in designing, integrating or implementing the health and physical education curriculum.
This point is critical. A public health imperative – to fight obesity – is being used to drive a reform in public education. And while some may see schools as an obvious place to fight obesity, that does not necessarily mean it is a good idea.
A number of scholars in health and physical education, sociology, fat studies, and indigenous studies argue that schools are neither an effective or appropriate site to wage the ‘war on obesity’.
There is a substantial body of research that points out the ‘unhealthy’ outcomes of teaching, learning and schooling that focuses on fatness. Research in New Zealand has clearly shown how some children take up messages about obesity and health in quite unhealthy ways: being dissatisfied with their bodies; obsessing about food, exercise and looking healthy; and being anxious about being or becoming fat.
In short, a school-based ‘war on obesity’ may well do more harm than good.
Critically, the point of health and physical education is that it is an educational endeavour, not a space for health interventions or obesity prevention programmes.
It is a learning area that focuses on developing students’ understanding of hauora (a Māori notion of holistic well-being) and other perspectives of health.
The health and physical education curriculum aims to develop students’ understanding of the complex and powerful political, economic, historical, social, and cultural forces that shape our thoughts, actions, bodies and identities.
It strives to equip students with the skills to take critical, collective action to change these very forces; to make their class, school, community, and even wider society more socially just, more equitable, even ‘healthier’.
Health and physical education focus on teaching and learning about health, not for health.
In this way, the measure of a quality health and physical education programme cannot be through improving student food ‘choices’, physical activity levels, or waistlines.
Let’s hope that before transferring the responsibility for children’s health and fatness onto children and their whānau, Schofield and the incoming Minister of Education will engage meaningfully with the health and physical education community.
We have a wealth of internationally and nationally recognised teachers and researchers in New Zealand. Their knowledge, experience and expertise must be valued. Their voices, including those of concern, must be heard.
The last thing children, teachers and schools need is to be put on a low education, high ‘fear of’ fat diet.