Obesity is on a long-term upward trend in Thailand, driven by factors such as the increased availability of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor food, as well as a social tendency to overfeed children at home.
According to the “Tackling Obesity in ASEAN” report, commissioned by the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN) and launched last June, Thailand faces the second highest obesity prevalence rate in Southeast Asia at 8.5 per cent, while cardiovascular diseases and stroke were identified as the leading causes of death by 2011 in the country.
To tackle this growing epidemic, ARoFIIN conducted a series of post-report launch, follow-up workshops in countries across ASEAN, including Thailand, to discuss and develop sustainable interventions to tackle obesity, through the promotion of nutrition education to children.
A three-pronged approach that aims to communicate key nutrition messages to children as part of their school curriculum, alongside modification of the food and physical activity environments to improve the health status in Thailand, was proposed during the in-country follow-up workshop.
Growing obesity numbers had previously prompted the Thai government to actively raise public awareness around the risks of obesity and ways to curb it, through public health campaigns and interventions. This time, the proposed “Nutri-Teacher” programme varies significantly from precedent public health interventions, as it introduces a new position for university students, who specialise in food and nutrition, and aspire to become teachers in schools.
These “Nutri-Teachers” will educate children aged between 4 and 12, and promote nutrition in an interactive and easy-to-understand manner, instilling the importance of proper, recommended nutrition intake in the school curriculum. Children will be educated on topics such as the food supply chain, understanding food and nutrition labels, and meal-planning.
Experiential learning through school gardening and physical activity programmes will also be part of the framework, in addition to the routine health checks that will be carried out to monitor the nutrition status of children. Such a combination of hands-on and in-classroom lessons could significantly influence a child’s dietary and lifestyle habits.
Prior to implementing the curriculum, the university undergraduates will undergo teacher-training to equip them with the knowledge and skills to effectively educate the younger generation on good nutrition in an interactive and easy-to-understand manner. To incentivise participation, candidates will be offered scholarships, to encourage the promotion of nutrition education across the nation.
Food and physical activity environment
On shaping a conducive food environment, industry players will work collectively with government ministries to increase the affordability, accessibility and acceptability of healthier food and beverage options in schools, prior to expanding into other communal spaces, such as offices and shopping malls, in order to gradually change eating habits in the country.
Similarly, modifications to the physical activity environment, through the promotion of daily chores such as gardening at home or in a school environment, the use of public transportation, or the expansion of urban recreational areas that can be used for community-based programmes to increase activity levels and community spirit, are expected to encourage students to be more active.
Through these initiatives, the gaps between the home and school community can be bridged, as the knowledge shared within the school environment extends beyond the child, and makes an impact on the family’s lifestyle as well.