Eat like a champion!
by Shaun Conaghan
As a teacher, I am both concerned and motivated by the statistic that 60% of Irish people are overweight or obese. This is alarming especially as our chronic disease rates related to diet and lifestyle continue to skyrocket, while our planet continues to deteriorate at an alarming pace. I passionately believe that teachers have an incredible opportunity through education, to empower children and their families to make healthier lifestyle choices for both themselves and our planet. I want to be part of the solution.
Having grown frustrated at the lack of educational programmes available that reflect the most reliable nutritional science, I decided to create my own.
I noticed that many children and their families are completely unaware of the possibility of meeting all of our nutritional needs and thriving on a varied whole-food, plantbased diet. They are confused by the media, as well as the powerful and profitable food industry influence. Healthcare professionals and at times the teachers they trust for dietary advice are usually not trained to offer it, and quite often are themselves confused. I also noticed that government guidelines are failing us with outdated documents such as the influential Irish Food Pyramid.
Eat Like A Champion Week:
I wanted to create a meaningful programme that empowers children to truly experience the benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet for themselves and to equip them with the tools to take better control of their health and happiness. I wanted to break down the boundaries that stand in their way, such as access to reliable information, and also to give them the skills to read food labels properly, to locate ingredients in shops and how to cook.
I designed a programme that we named “Eat Like a Champion Week.” Every day, the children volunteered to come to school an hour early, and stay for two hours after school finished. Every day for a week, we prepared and cooked five different breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks together as a group. We also included class shop visits, where we bought our ingredients in local supermarkets. We sat at a table together and enjoyed the conversation and the food they helped to prepare, before tidying up together afterwards. The benefits of contributing and working together as a family or community on everyday tasks and objectives were also discussed over the course of week.
We started each day with ten minutes of mindfulness and enjoyed thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise, before cooking our dinner. The programme aired on RTÉ (Ireland’s leading national television channel), on online streaming and social media platforms that enabled us to get our healthy message from the classroom to over a hundred thousand families, children and teachers around the country and abroad.
Declaring War on Ultra-Processed Foods: 45.9% of Irish calories are now coming from ultra-processed foods. I wanted to design an empowering research project around the harmful effects of overconsuming processed foods.
Together we investigated how to read labels and designed a display to show our school community exactly how much sugar, oil and salt are hidden in processed foods.
We then investigated their link to the growth of chronic disease rates in Ireland. We also designed a survey to investigate how much processed foods children in our school were consuming. The results were both staggering and empowering. We shared our project findings at Ireland’s leading science fair “The Young Scientist Exhibition”. One startling finding in relation to sugar consumption was that children can safely consume between four and six bags of added sugar in a year. Irish children however, are averaging thirty-five bags per year (picture above illustrates this disconnect).
This makes Ireland the fourth greatest consumer of added sugar in the world. Again, I am proud to say that our research findings were also aired on national television, getting this empowering message into thousands of homes across the country.
Some other healthy eating and lifestyle initiatives I run in our school include:
Lunchbox of the week:
Every day I show the children a photo of my breakfast and take my lunch box to class to show them. This has developed into them showing me their lunch boxes each day. Here, the emphasis is on progress, and I celebrate each small incremental movement towards a healthier lunch box, such as switching from white bread or pasta to brown, or adding an extra portion of fruit or vegetables each day. Every Friday, I share my top five and most-improved healthy lunch boxes of the week with parents, through our school’s social media page.
On the first Tuesday of the month, we encourage the children to bring in either a fruit or vegetable, preferably an unusual one. They wash and chop it up and display it on their desk. They then walk around the classroom tasting some of the new, colourful fruits and vegetables that are on offer. This has been simple to run and very successful. The children go to great lengths to get unusual foods and have even discovered some nearby Asian markets.
Progress Mondays / Meat free Mondays / Plant based Mondays:
Every Monday, I encourage and challenge each child in my class to make healthy progress with their families. Some children attempt meat-free, some attempt going fully plant-based and some simply make an effort to add more whole grains, beans, fruits or vegetables to their meals. I praise all progress. Some families send in their “Progress Selfies” where they send me a photo of them sitting down to eat their meals as a family, and I share these selfies through our school’s social media page. The ripple effect of this in our school community is powerful.
Snack like a Champion (Free fruit and Veg. stall):
Once per week, we collect any leftover fruit from our state funded lunches, and offer them back to the children as a snack as they walk out of the school gate and home. I encourage them to “snack like a champion”. We also offer fruit to parents who are collecting the children to further communicate this good example. Children reported that this bridged the gap to their dinner and made them less likely to reach for junk food snacks, such as biscuits when they arrive home from school.
Free “Why and How Plant-Based” e-book for families: I am currently in the process of writing a free e-book for parents, with reliable information on the benefits of eating a more plant-based diet. It includes endorsements and introductions from healthcare professionals, as well as five breakfast, five lunch box, five family dinner and five snack ideas to help get them started on their healthy journey.
I would also be delighted to share this with the Plant-Based Healthcare Professional UK members, so that in turn, you can share with your patients.
Parents information evenings: I had scheduled an event for this May, where I invited the community to an information evening on plant-based eating, with a talk from myself and Dr. Johnny Allman on the health benefits of eating more plants, as well as a cooking demonstration. This will now be rescheduled for a time when it is safe to do so, given the Covid-19 pandemic. I have also been invited to speak at national healthcare conference and in other schools, to inspire healthy community-based initiatives
Lobby Government to act on updating nutritional guidelines, reliable nutrition education and environmental initiatives in schools: I will be lobbying government minsters and state organisations through our teachers’ unions, to take greater responsibility towards acknowledging the important role of a more plant-based diet as a solution to human health, the environment and to improve our chances of avoiding future pandemics. I will be seeking that the government introduce updated nutritional guidelines and education programmes and initiatives that reflect the science.
Finally, I’m delighted to say I recently completed the “The Plant Based Nutrition; A Sustainable Diet for Optimal Health” course through the University of Winchester. It is very important to me that I offer the most reliable information and education to the children and families under my care. The course has been a powerful educational tool for me to confidently promote a whole-food, plant-based diet to children, families and communities that will promote better health, for us and for our planet.
I want to thank Shireen and her incredibly passionate and informed team at the Plant Based Healthcare Professionals UK for providing us with this balanced and actionable, life saving public service.
I have recently set up an Instagram page to share my healthy school initiatives, plant-based recipes, healthy habits, practical tips and useful bite-sized science facts to inspire children, teachers and families towards healthier plant-based and lifestyle choices.
Please feel free to get in touch and I hope that together, we can continue to be part of the solution.