Adventist schools get teen health tick

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(Photo: Avondale School)

If your child is likely to experience weight problems, and if you have the financial means, send them to a Seventh-day Adventist school. Students at these schools are less heavy than and less likely to become as heavy as other adolescents in Australia, a first-of-its-kind study shows.

Rates of overweight and obesity are between five and 18 per cent lower among students in Adventist schools than among other adolescents and those in other Australian schools, finds a study published in the August issue of the Journal of School Health. And despite a national increase in the prevalence of overweight and obese adolescents over the past 30 years, the study found no increase in Adventist schools.

It appears adolescents attending Adventist schools in Australia are “trending some 20 years behind the wider population,” write the researchers in their paper.

Findings from the study come from a health and lifestyle survey commissioned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific. The survey is the first Australia-wide evaluation of body mass index for adolescents attending Adventist schools. Almost 2000 students—788 in 2001 and 1098 in 2012—from 21 schools participated.

Researchers from the Lifestyle Research Centre at Avondale College of Higher Education analysed the data. They found a higher number of the students compared to adolescents in other studies ate the recommended daily servings of fruit, vegetables and whole grains. A lower number—only four per cent of the students in 2012—regularly drank soft drinks. With one in three claiming to be vegetarian, the researchers thought diet may in part explain the students’ lower body mass index. But they found no significant difference in the body mass index of the vegetarians and those who ate meat.

Three-quarters of the students in the study grew up in a family that had at least one Adventist parent. With the church’s emphasis on wholism, the researchers suggest the students may be copying the good health behaviours of their parents—which the researchers observed in other studies.

The influence of the Adventist schools themselves may also be a contributing factor. All of the schools in the study serve only vegetarian food in their canteens. Some enforce the eating of fruit or vegetable snacks during recess. And some implement needs-based health interventions such as a breakfast program. The researchers suggest, based on their reading of other studies, that the emphasis on spirituality may also exert a positive influence on health attitudes and behaviours.

The study identified the keys to keeping a lower weight, and they apply as much to adults as adolescents: regularly eat breakfast and exercise; and consume less sugar, particularly soft drinks, and more fruit, vegetables and whole grains.

The researchers suggest schools can play a leading role in addressing concerns over rising rates of overweight and obesity. Their recommendations include:

  • Expanding health education and physical education teaching in and out of the classroom, supported by classes on cooking and nutrition
  • Enforcing the eating of fruit or vegetable snacks during recess
  • Reducing the availability of unhealthy food and drink in canteens
  • Offering a breakfast program
  • Increasing opportunities for physical activity with, for example, organised sports during recess and lunch, and
  • Collaborating with families to offer active transport such as a bike or walking bus to and from school
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