Health Promotion in Action: GWSPH Researcher Teaches Eighth Graders About Nutrition Facts and Follies

This article was written by Nichole Jannah, an MPH student and STOP Obesity Alliance research assistant at the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness.

Over a Sunday brunch last November, my longtime friend Catherine Wood mentioned that many of her eighth grade students at Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston, Virginia, were skeptical of the extreme claims being presented in Chew on This by Eric Schlosser. They were reading the book about the fast food industry as part of their annual nonfiction unit, which Catherine–an innovative language arts teacher–devoted to nutrition literature for this academic year. She said her students would benefit greatly from some expert insight on the topic.

Having observed EXNS Assistant Professor Allison Meni’s prowess in articulating what we know (and don’t know) about the health effects of non-nutritive sweeteners during a previous guest lecture, I knew she would be a great resource for students trying to assess the validity of convoluted, often controversial claims about various components of the standard American diet. I approached Dr. Meni, who kindly agreed to come out and debunk nutrition myths for this young audience, while Catherine proposed the idea to her school administration. A collaboration was born. 

Earlier this month, Dr. Meni engaged 300 students at Langston Hughes Middle School with an insightful guest lecture on making healthful choices in America’s complex food environment. Students entered the experience primed with knowledge from their recent literary unit. At Dr. Meni’s prompting, attentive students were quick to recall the myriad of chronic diseases associated with poor nutrition and obesity: hypertension, heart disease, cancer. One student even cited a potential link between increased risk of dementia and a low-quality diet. Through decades of collaboration with mass media and policymakers, it appears public health has successfully educated U.S. youth on the association between unhealthy lifestyles and several leading causes of death. 

Yet, when it came time to apply basic nutrition knowledge in assessing the relative merits of commonly consumed foods and beverages, important knowledge gaps in what constitutes a healthy diet were readily apparent. Few students recognized that a 12-oz. bottle of Tropicana orange juice provides as many (if not more) calories than a 12-oz. bottle of Coca-Cola and contains nearly the same amount of sugar. Participants—including teachers and administrators sitting in on the presentation—were shocked to learn that Bertucci’s chicken Caesar salad contains more fat than Bertucci’s mozzarella-smothered chicken parmesan. While neither is a healthful choice, the audience’s gasps of disbelief at these skyrocketing sugar, fat, and calorie counts underscored the need for more practical training in nutrition early on. Encouraging individuals to make “healthy” choices is futile if these individuals are not equipped with the knowledge and skills to distinguish nutritious food and beverage choices from nutrient-poor items riddled with hidden sugars, fat, sodium and empty calories.

Importantly, the responses and dialogue elicited by Dr. Meni’s well-received presentation highlight the role that public health professionals can play in preparing our nation’s youth to think critically as informed consumers and advocates for their health. The enthusiasm of students at Hughes Middle School is a reminder that nontraditional community outreach from GWSPH students, faculty and staff and can go a long way in rallying support to address cornerstone public health issues.