Fitwits and Elvis Pretzley Teach Kids About Obesity?

Healthy eating and a basic understanding of the nutritional quality of foods should be a regular part of a kid’s education. But nothing can be more boring than listening to a teacher preach about the value of fruits and vegetables or rattle off the many dangers of junk foods.

Now a team of researchers, designers, physicians and dietitians from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University School of Design and UPMC Saint Margaret Family Health Centers, with a lot of input from kids and teachers, have designed a 1-h classroom program designed to inform fifth grade students about obesity and its adverse effects and to enhance self-management skills for students and their families.

The program is called Fitwits and is centered on the Fitwits and Nitwits cartoon personas. The Fitwits epitomize healthy foods and desirable lifestyle choices, including physical activities and active hobbies; the Nitwits typify unhealthy food choices and undesirable lifestyle decisions.

‘Character cards’ are illustrated with a Fitwit or Nitwit and present simple fat and sugar scales and easily understood Fitwits ratings. Some cards include a simple recipe that reinforces use of a hand guide to measure portion sizes.

Children assigned character names, such as Elvis Pretzley, Mac and Tasha, Queen of Wheat, Sunny Yolk, Fry Girls, Mr Leather, Biggie Allbeef, Barfenstein, and The Belchers.

The program aims to teach fifth graders the definition of ‘obesity’ and to inform them that obesity can be improved or prevented through food selection, portion guidance, and physical activity.

In a study, just released online in the International Journal of Obesity, Ann McGaffey and colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh show that this 1-hr program can indeed increase kids’ nutrition awareness and knowledge but, surprisingly, also change their views and beliefs about obesity.

Thus, the researchers made three interesting observations:

1) Pre-intervention, 39% of the kids thought the word ‘obesity’ indicates ‘a weight problem that cannot be helped’ and 19% felt that obesity is ‘okay because it will improve as a grown-up.’ After the program, students showed an improved understanding of obesity.

2) The Fitwits School program refuted commonly held beliefs that children and families find the term ‘obese’ to be unnecessarily pejorative when applied to children. The researchers found that when the word ‘obesity’ was projected in its health context it was accepted by both students and school personnel.

3) In the post-test results, almost all students recognized that obesity could lead to heart disease. This is an important realization for the children, who may not get this message at home as many parents do not recognize obesity in their children, perceive the health risks, or express concern about excess weight.

What the study does not examine is whether this improved perception and increase in knowledge actually translates into better behaviours.

I also did not see mention of whether or not this program helped lessen the bias against overweight kids. As I have blogged before, overly simplistic “healthy living” messages as the solution to the obesity epidemic can potentially increase weight-bias and discrimination while having little impact on changing actual behaviours.

Nevertheless, if presented in a sensitive and non-judgmental manner, education on healthy eating and the risks of excess weight may well be a laudable goal.

Perhaps some of my readers (especially parents and teachers) will take time to explore the Fitwits site – I would certainly be keen to hear any comments on this.

Edmonton, Alberta