Students need more fruit and vegetable options at school
Researchers at the University of Tartu studied the dietary habits, health related physical fitness and body composition of school children in the City of Tartu. Based on the results, they recommend schools to offer a varied menu including a diverse selection of fruit and vegetables, teach adolescents to understand the connections between physical fitness and health, and to get them to consciously develop in this area.
Physical fitness and body composition are directly related to health. Optimal physical fitness helps to cope with work and leisure activities more efficiently, be healthy, resist diseases and cope with emergency situations. The ratio of fats and the fat-free mass, i.e. the musculoskeletal system, also plays an important part.
At least 60 minutes of moderate to high-intensity physical activity is needed daily for children and adolescents. The Estonian Physical Activity Report Card which was based on the results of the studies from the last five years about physical activity of children and adolescents showed that approximately 80% of Estonian children are not enough physically active every day. As physical activity and physical fitness are related, the physical fitness of many adolescents may be under the recommended level for maintaining and improving health.
To make specific proposals for solving this problem, the researchers at the University of Tartu, Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy investigated the level of adherence to the dietary habits (Mediterranean Diet) in physical fitness performance and body composition parameters in 13–16-year-old adolescents in Tartu (56% boys and 44% girls). The study included 413 adolescent participants.
One of the authors of the study, a lecturer of didactics of physical education at the University of Tartu, Maret Pihu, said that studies on healthy lifestyle often combine indicators of physical activity, level of physical fitness, sleep and diet, basing the last on the criteria of the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is based on a high intake of plant-based food, such as vegetables, fruits and legumes, nuts and whole grain products, and a lower consumption of yoghurt, cheese, fish, olive oil and red meat.
Most significant results
The study showed that 14.28% of students adhered to the Mediterranean diet, wherein 44.05% showed average adherence and 41.67% low adherence. Within the same study conducted among Icelandic adolescents, 24.29% had high adherence and 14.99% low adherence to the Mediterranean diet.
Pihu finds this comparison interesting as the geographic location and traditions of Iceland do not support the Mediterranean diet. However, they have 10% more adolescents adhering to the diet and significantly less of those doing so on a low level.
“This is no doubt related to the very conscious health programme of Icelandic schools, a part of which is a diverse menu including a large selection of vegetable and fruit dishes. There is a national recognition system established for Icelandic schools, which is implemented when students are regularly ensured a high-quality and varied menu including options for vegetarian and non-vegetarian students,” described Pihu.
Among the students who participated in the study, the body mass indexes did not differ much on the basis of dietary habits, wherein 25.01% of girls and 14.68% of boys were overweight.
Compared to the international physical fitness health zones, the average results of boys showed low scores in upper body strength, average scores in speed-agility and cardiorespiratory endurance and high scores in leg strength. The average results for girls were high in speed-agility as well as leg strength, and average in upper body strength.
What should be done differently?
According to Pihu, the results of the study show that we should be thinking about how to make a diverse diet that is largely based on plant-based food (fruits, vegetables, etc.) and to a lesser degree on food of animal origin available and attractive to adolescents. “The availability of fruit and vegetables throughout the entire school day is also important and adolescents should be offered different options,” said Pihu.
Furthermore, it is important in physical education to pay attention to a conscious development of physical fitness, including emphasising their associations with health and quality of life, and not to only achieving certain results.
The results of the study conducted among school children from Tartu were published in the journals Nutrients and Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The study was conducted within the international research project “Physical Fitness, Motivation, Sleep Quality and Nutritional Profile in Adolescents from Sevilla (Spain), Tartu (Estonia) and Reykjavik (Island)” involving the University of Tartu Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy, University of Seville in Spain and Reykjavik University in Iceland.
The University of Tartu Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy is also participating in the international project FitBack of the “Erasmus+” programme aimed at collecting all the data known so far on the connections between health and physical fitness. Based on these and the experience of various countries, the best solutions will then be developed for supporting the teacher, parent and student for developing their physical fitness.
The translation of this article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.