Television, the internet, and video games are often cited as reasons so many of America’s children are obese. Ironically, several new curriculum programs that use some of the same technologies blamed for contributing to childhood obesity are encouraging the nation’s youth to adopt healthier lifestyles.

Awareness about the severity of childhood obesity plaguing the nation’s children was heightened by a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study said nearly a third of boys and girls ages 2 to 19 are overweight. The number of overweight boys has increased by 20 percent in the last five years, and the number of overweight children has more than tripled since the mid-1960s.

Interventions have popped up nationwide. For example, at the beginning of May, the bottling industry announced it would stop selling soda in public schools. Through an agreement brokered by former President Bill Clinton and his foundation, the nation’s largest beverage distributors–including Cadbury Schweppes PLC, Coca-Cola Co., and PepsiCo Inc.–said they would only sell water, unsweetened juice, and low-fat milk to elementary and middle schools. Diet sodas only would be sold at high schools. The companies reportedly will work to implement the changes at three-fourths of the nation’s public schools by the 2008-2009 school year, and at all public schools a year later.

Educators and school leaders across the country also have taken steps to curb childhood obesity by stepping up their health education programs–and many are using technology to better engage kids and get the message across.

Jill Bond, a teacher at Morningside Elementary School in Port St. Lucie, Fla., uses food nutrition education to teach her fourth grade students core curriculum subjects such as math, science, and language arts.

“It’s amazing how little these children knew about nutrition,” Bond said. With resources gleaned from textbooks, the internet, and Discovery Education’s Health Connection, she taught her students math, science, reading, writing, and about food groups, carbohydrates, fats, and more.

For a lesson on grains, she had her students grind whole grains, such as popcorn, wheat berries, and groats, into cornmeal, flour, and oatmeal. Students also kept journals of what grains they ate that week, and they watched a video from Discovery Education Health Connection about how different cultures eat different grains.

Although showing video to students might seem counter-productive, Bond said it engages her students more quickly than she otherwise could.

“Children ‘so’ need the entertainment, so it’s nice to have the multimedia tie-in,” Bond said. “These kids are so multimedia-entwined since birth. They’ve been raised with big-screen TVs, and some of them can text message faster than I can type.”

The videos offered by Discovery Education are arranged in short segments. The videos Bond shows are only minutes long, but still, she will pause them to ask questions or to get students to anticipate what is coming up next.

Discovery Education Health Connection is a full health and prevention curriculum program available online. Its content covers nine areas: alcohol and other drugs; the body; growth and development; mental health; nutrition; physical activity; safety; tobacco; and violence.

“It does provide a one-stop-shop for health and prevention content,” said Mari Belalcazar, marketing manager for Discovery Education, a division of Discovery Communications. “Educators can use it as a full curriculum, but they don’t have to.”

The program includes lessons plans, worksheets, videos, and teacher guides. Each lesson is correlated to state standards, and the lessons are interdisciplinary so teachers can easily incorporate nutrition education into math, science, and language-arts subjects.

“Obesity is not just a nutrition issue; it is not just an exercise issue,” said Belalcazar: psychological issues also can come into play. A student who was bullied on the playground might comfort him- or herself with overeating. Discovery Education Health Connection’s comprehensive curriculum would address that, she said.

Discovery Education Health Connection costs $1,695 per school building, per year. A new version, which will be available this fall, will have more interactivity and a greater focus on integrating health topics into the core subjects such as math, science, and language arts.

A quest for longevity

One thousand students and 100 teachers from Hopkins North Junior High School in Hopkins, Minn., pledged to make healthier lifestyle choices by taking the Blue Zones Challenge in May.

The Challenge is a web-based intervention program that encourages students and teachers to make healthier choices based on research and guidance gleaned from regions in the world where people have lived the longest.

After a presentation at a school assembly by Dan Buettner, author of National Geographic’s November 2005 longevity cover story and leader of Quest Network Inc. interactive expeditions, students at Hopkins were inspired to take the challenge.

Students had to record how much television they watched, how much exercise they did, what fruits and vegetable they ate, and how much soda they drank. At the end of each week, students entered their statistics online. Each week, they tried to do better than the week before. They also could compare their progress with that of other students.

“We thought it was a good way to end the school year and start the summer,” Hibbard said, adding that the program really made students aware of what they were consuming–and hopefully the good habits will last throughout the summer.

“Our school district has always been on the cutting edge of promoting healthy eating,” said Linda Hibbard, associate principal at Hopkins North Junior High School. For example, the district hired an executive chef to make school lunches more nutritious. The cafeteria now features a grill line and a build-your-own-sandwich station that is filled with farm-fresh ingredients. The district also removed soda machines from its school buildings long ago.

“Students like lunch at Hopkins,” Hibbard said. “It’s very nutritious and attractively presented.”

In October, Blue Zones Expeditions will be leading a quest to Central America to one of the hottest-known spots of longevity yet. Each day for three weeks, participating students will be able to direct a team of explorers as they try to unearth secrets for living a long, healthy life. Like a choose-your-own-adventure story, students will get to vote on logistical, ethical, and content development decisions via the web. Should the explorers interview a restaurant owner, a local centenarian, or a professor?

Nightly, the exploration team will post new video, photographs, and materials on the web site based on the most popular decision made by the students. The curriculum guide shows teachers how to use Blue Zones, whether they have five minutes a day or prefer to integrate the content throughout the day.

The Blue Zones Curriculum, provided by Quest Networks Inc., is free thanks to paid sponsorships. Educators can register to participate at the Blue Zones web site.

Cafeteria nutrition calculator

Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools is one of a growing number of school systems across the county that are using the interactivity afforded by the internet to help students and their parents see the nutritional impact of their food choices. The district now offers parents and students access to an online nutrition calculator so they can figure out the nutritional value of foods served in their school cafeterias.

To access the calculator, parents and students must go to the Nutri-Café web site and choose their district and school from a list, followed by the date of the menu they wish to view.

Immediately, they will enter what looks like a virtual cafeteria, where users can drag and drop pictures of the menu items onto their virtual “tray.” Once an item is added to the tray, the nutritional value is tallied.

Not only does the web site calculate the calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, protein, and other nutrients; Nutri-Café also calculates the price of the lunch. Based on the student’s participation in the National School Lunch Program, different calculations appear for paid, free, or reduced-price lunches. When the components of a complete meal have been reached, a star will flash.

“Our hope is that this technology will generate more discussion among students and their parents about meal choices, helping them to better understand the many choices available and the health benefits of their choices,” said Lora Novak, interim school nutrition director for Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Links:

Discovery Education Health Connection
http://www.discoveryhealthconnection.com

Blue Zones
http://www.bluezones.com

Nutri-Café
http://www.nutri-cafe.com