Back to School Time Can Be an Opportunity to Promote Youth Wellness

At urban Philadelphia’s Anne Frank Elementary School, kids are learning how they can make healthy choices by taking exercise “brain breaks” in the classroom and substituting Greek yogurt for birthday cupcakes. A lifestyle that includes healthy eating and physical activity can help reduce childhood overweight and obesity, thereby lowering their risk for other conditions like high blood pressure or abnormal glucose metabolism – components of Metabolic Syndrome (MetS). There is hope and opportunity this can change because research indicates that when children follow a healthy dietary pattern such as DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) they can lower their risk for developing MetS.

A DASH-style eating pattern emphasizes higher consumption of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains, nuts and legumes and lower consumption of red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium. A prospective study among more than 400 healthy children and adolescents in Iran found that greater adherence to the DASH eating pattern was associated with a significantly lower likelihood of developing MetS over 3.6 years of follow-up. It also showed a decreased risk of developing MetS risk factors such as abdominal obesity, high fasting blood glucose and high blood pressure. A previous randomized controlled trial in adolescent girls with MetS also found that following the DASH diet for 6 weeks, compared to the general healthy eating advice, lowered the prevalence of MetS. Other studies in adolescent girls have noted beneficial associations with blood pressure and lipid profiles when they consume DASH-like diets.

Motivating youth to make healthy lifestyle changes can be a challenge, because it may be hard for them to envision the long-term health consequences. Rather than concentrating on the problem, it’s more effective to focus on solutions to youth wellness, such as the Fuel Up to Play 60 program that empowers youth, schools and communities to stay healthy by eating well and exercising more. For example, middle-school students in grades 6, 7 and 8 in Crystal Lake, Illinois, created a Fitness and Nutrition Club where they enjoyed healthy snacks and fitness fun.

One secret to the success of Fuel Up To Play 60 programs is empowering youth as their own change agents, as Dr. Marc Zimmerman discussed in a recent blog post. “Empowering students, as is done in programs such as these, can help youth gain self-confidence and leadership skills which can help in healthy physical and psychological development,” he said.  

By educating youth and families how to follow a healthy eating pattern like DASH and by encouraging them to become involved in school programs like FUTP60, health and wellness professionals can have a positive influence on the long-term health and well-being of our youth.