Energising school kids, plus iEat with Nadia Lim

by Jennifer Bowden / 22 August, 2013
Inactive children’s lives are being transformed by a schools programme.
Two Super Rugby titles in two years – the Waikato Chiefs are reigning supreme. And if children are our future, then Waikato rugby’s future is safe in the hands of Project Energize, a “multi-component through-school programme”.

Waikato children learn about healthy eating

For children to take part in organised sports such as rugby and netball, they must master fundamental movement skills (FMS). The ability to run, leap, skip and slide, as well as catch, bounce, kick and throw objects is integral to sport and playtime. Yet in 2008 when Project Energize measured the FMS of Waikato children aged between 5 and 12, less than half were proficient in kicking (21%), throwing (31%) and striking (40%), although most could run and slide.

Since 2005, the Waikato District Health Board has invested over $10 million in Project Energize to improve health and reduce weight gain in primary and intermediate school children by encouraging healthy eating and increased physical activity.

So-called “energizers”, employed by project partner Sport Waikato, provide schools with practical support for any initiatives that increase healthy eating or the quality and quantity of physical activity.

One example is the knowledge and tools given to teachers who, in turn, improved FMS proficiency through the school’s existing physical education classes. After six weeks of tailored physical education, the children’s skills had substantially improved: kicking proficiency had reached 50%, throwing 63% and striking 76%. Indeed, the younger children became more competent than the older children had been at baseline and the ability gap between lower- and higher-decile schools was markedly reduced or removed.

Project Energize also recently reported in the British Journal of Nutrition that in 2011 the body mass index (BMI) of the Energized Waikato schoolchildren was lower than comparable un-Energized children in 2006 and that younger children were 31% and older children 15% less likely to be obese or overweight than those in historical un-Energized schools. Also, younger and older children completed a 550m run in 14% and 11% shorter times, respectively, than comparable Canterbury children – Crusaders beware! And all while national obesity rates continue to climb. How are they doing it?

Professor Elaine Rush, from Project Energize partner AUT University, explains, “One energizer is assigned to every school and looks after between eight and 12 schools, which is where the cost-effectiveness comes in.” The annual cost of the programme is only $45 a child, equivalent to a doctor’s visit but probably more health-enhancing, says Rush.

Healthier options in Project Energize

The energizer creates a yearly plan with each school, focusing on appropriate goals. These may include improving fundamental movement skills; making over the school canteen – swapping pastry-based pies and oversized cookies for filled rolls, fruit and low-fat yoghurt; and encouraging healthier school fund-raising, so instead of selling chocolates and biscuits and having sausage sizzles, schools would look at selling water, milk, soup, bread rolls, fruit and non-food items.

The energizers also offer information on healthier food choices – for example, by providing a weekly nutrition tip for school newsletters and fridge magnets that reinforce nutrition goals.

“Real estate agents say just about every home in the Waikato has these magnets on their fridge,” says Rush. The energizers also help teachers create varied daily exercise activities and encourage children to have more active play at home.

Project Energize has produced such positive results it’s now being tried in Northland, Counties Manukau and even Cork, Ireland. The Government also recently announced $1.1 million of funding to extend the project to preschoolers in four Waikato districts. Rush wants it rolled out nationwide.

“One teacher said we’re not really going to see a [big] difference until these children are the ones who buy the bread. But we have to look at not always getting an immediate bang for our buck; long-term it will have huge effects. This obesity epidemic and our lack of healthiness have built up over three generations, so it’s probably going to take that long to wash out, [especially] if we also have better housing and security for our families,” says Rush. “Energize doesn’t get around the questions of poverty, unemployment and cold houses.”

iEat: Nadia Lim

MasterChef 2011 winner Nadia Lim spent seven years growing up in Malaysia, where life revolves around the next meal the family will share. A qualified dietitian, she knows how important healthy eating is to well-being and productivity. She has used this knowledge and her MasterChef experiences to create her cookbook and new venture My Food Bag, which started in Auckland and Hamilton and is now being expanded to Wellington.

Nadia Lim. Photo/Michael Craig/Herald on Sunday

Do you follow a special diet?

We can eat anything in moderation, as long as it’s real food – that may sound silly, but lots of food products are so heavily processed I wouldn’t classify them as real food. I say “eat food from the ground, the sea and the sky – not the factories”. In other words, eat as little processed food as possible.

My typical breakfast is …

poached eggs on wholegrain toast with spinach and pesto or hummus. On other days it can be rice pudding, a healthy muffin or an avocado smoothie (you’ve got to try it, it’s amazing). All these breakfast recipes are in my next cookbook, coming out later this year.

When I work in the My Food Bag office/test kitchen, my workday lunch is different every day. We’re usually sampling four to five dishes and food products, so there’s a lot of picking here and there. Today was skirt steak, chipotle black beans, avocado and wild rice, followed by pad thai noodles. Obviously, I have to watch portion sizes.

If it’s been a big recipe-testing/sampling day, my typical evening meal is fish and salad, a bowl of stir-fried greens or pasta with homemade tomato sauce (something simple and light). If it’s the weekend, we might have Turkish or Asian – I love big flavours in my food.

What’s a great last-minute healthy dinner idea?

If you like raw salmon, sashimi with sliced avocado and rice (kind of like deconstructed sushi) is great. If you prefer it cooked, glaze the salmon with a mixture of equal parts lime juice, soy sauce and sweet chilli sauce, then bake in a 220°C oven for 7-8 minutes or until just cooked through.

Healthy eating is …

one of the most important life skills. If you can cook, you don’t have to rely on processed food and takeaways.

New Zealand food is …

the freshest ingredients paired with cultural diversity. Our produce is outstanding – we’re luckier than we often think. I was reminded of this during my travels through Europe and Asia this year.

Email: nutrition@listener.co.nz, or write to “Nutrition”, c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.
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