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Head Start teachers behind on nutrition: study

By Kathryn Doyle

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Preschool teachers scored low on a nutrition knowledge quiz and seemed to have unhealthy eating habits themselves, researchers found in a small study.

"Kids are with these teachers 6 to 8 hours a day, five days a week," lead author Shreela Sharma told Reuters Health. "Asking a child to make healthy choices when there are none in the environment he's in, that's not going to happen."

The federally funded Head Start program - which has been in the news following President Barack Obama's pledge for preschool funding - provides daily child care for children from low income families across the U.S. The program has served tens of millions of children since 1965.

Sharma and her colleagues asked 173 teachers at Head Start centers in Harris County, Texas five questions including "Which food group should be consumed most?" and "How many servings of fruits and vegetables should you eat each day?"

Ninety-seven percent of the teachers answered three or fewer of the questions correctly, according to results in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

A quarter of the teachers had not eaten fruit the previous day, but half had eaten french fries. Almost half had drank soda the previous day.

Healthy eating habits are especially important for children from low income families, who are hit harder by the obesity epidemic, according to Sharma, who studies nutrition at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. A 2011 study found that 25 percent of preschoolers who attend Head Start were obese, compared to a national average for 2 to 5 year old kids of 9 percent.

OTHER PRESCHOOLS WORSE?

Head Start, which requires teachers to have college degrees, is probably a bit ahead of other preschool programs in the country, which makes these results even more startling, Dianne Stanton Ward, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health in Chapel Hill, told Reuters Health.

Head Start teachers are expected to introduce children to food groups as well as numbers and letters, but nutrition is not mandatory in teacher training, according to Sharma.

"Even in early childhood education programs, nutrition is rarely included in the curriculum, because the focus is more on the education of young children-mainly preparing children for math and reading," Sara Benjamin Neelon, a registered dietitian at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina and former Head Start nutritionist, told Reuters Health by email.

"The teachers want to do right, they're there because they love their kids, we just need to provide them with the tools that they need to make this environment healthier," like teacher nutrition training and worksite wellness programs in schools, Sharma said.

Poor nutritional knowledge likely extends to elementary, middle and high schools, according to Mike Prelip, professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health and former middle school teacher.

"It goes beyond training, there needs to be a focus on environmental changes," like having enough play space for kids and stocking vending machines with healthy options for the adults, Prelip, who was not involved in Sharma's study, told Reuters Health.

"I don't think we're ever going to get 100 percent of adults to be ideal role models for children, but I think we'd like to see that we're moving the needle a bit," said Ward, who was not involved in the current study.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/VaqK0x the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, online February 18, 2013.

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