This is how the Dutch are tackling childhood obesity - it's simpler than you'd think
Two thirds of 14 and 16-year-olds in Amsterdam walk or cycle to school.
The youth in the Netherlands, a country that’s almost synonymous with bicycles, epitomise health and fitness, you might think. But the Dutch government has been forced to tackle childhood obesity too, like many of its European counterparts including Ireland.
In 2015, a study by Euromonitor found that Dutch sugar consumption is the third highest in the world, exceeded only by that of the United States (the highest) and Germany (the second highest).
Five years ago, almost one in five children in Amsterdam were found to be overweight or obese.
The city’s council and health department undertook to develop a long term holistic approach to tackle the problem.
“A sizeable, structural budget, reaching as far as 2033”, was allocated for treating the problem, the city’s website explains.
Schools were advised to ban fruit juices, and unhealthy treats for students’ birthday celebrations.
One primary school, the De Achtsprong primary school, was ranked in the top three schools in Amsterdam for overweight children in 2010, but it has since moved further down the scale thanks to interventions.
Wilbert Sawat, the school’s coordinator and PE teacher, told Independent.ie that the children are screened by local government once a year. Their weight and height are measured confidentially.
“They also get a sport participation review, which looks at how many sports are they in during school and after school.”
"The children who are overweight and have a small lag in motor skills, then we try to get them in a programme after school, to hopefully improve their motor skills."
“Children who are obese and have a big lag in motor skills we try to get them to a specialist, physical therapy, a dietitian and so on.”
“We try to get them [access to those services], but it’s their responsibility to go there.”
“When it started in 2010, we were in the top three in the most obese primary schools. Now we’re doing very well on the motor skills, and there are a few children who are obese but we are not in the top three anymore,” he explained.
The students attend PE classes twice a week. Evening activities at the school are varied and include after-school judo, basketball and dancing. The only drinks the students can bring into school are water and milk. For lunch, the children are not allowed to bring in last night’s takeaway leftovers, something which was becoming a trend.
The children are taught how to cook and read food labels.
Every month, a group of students are chosen to form a team and cook and sell one lunch for the school. The group of year eight students (11 or 12 year-olds) research and cook their chosen healthy dish, learn about its nutritional content, and they also learn to budget for their groceries.
The team dynamic adds a fun, competitive element, similar to junior Masterchef Australia, and students work hard to better their predecessors.
“In Groep 8 (year 8), it’s split into four or five small groups of children. If they’re making tacos, the school can order what they want, and the children have to measure what they need to buy for the groceries. They start a little company.”
“They need help from parents and the teachers of course. But it means that one group tries to be better than the other team.”
Sawat added: “During school time we have cooking lessons with the teachers and parents. The parents are involved in making the food and they choose the recipes, and think about how to make it healthier. Like, do you use butter to grill, or oil, and what kind of ingredients are on the packet.”
“Last Friday there were three products that were Indian and Indonesian food.”
“It’s also great for their mathematics, [dealing with questions like] how much money do you have, how much money are you going to charge?”
Children who have excelled in some activities during the week are then given the chance to take part in a form of boot camp at the school, where they effectively run about four kilometres for 45 mins.
“The children are hopefully motivated to do their best. It’s for the children who are good in their lessons as well.”
“For us now it’s a way of life, it’s normal,” he added.
Nutritional therapist and mother-of-two Sanna Sumner says her daughters’ school, another school in Amsterdam, also bans fruit juices. And parents have been specifically asked to prepare their children’s lunches.
“Some of the schools still struggle with implementing [the no-fruit juices rule]. Normally they say only bring in water.”
“There’s no fruit and the school has posters up about how much sugar is in fruit juices. They really try to lower that fruit juice intake. Some people are still bringing croissants and fruit juices but the school tries to advise.”
“The normal thing [instead of fruit] is just a snack of water and vegetables. It was a huge change when it was introduced. All the parents have to prepare the lunches for their kids.”
“It’s about making people aware of what’s in the juices because it was all considered healthy at one time.”
“It think it’s a really great idea. Sugar is everywhere: in yoghurts, drinks and even the breads. I think it’s really good that they try to cut it down at school level.”
Another parent Shay Klomp Bueters says her five-year-old son’s school encourages parents to give their children healthy treats for birthday celebrations at the school.
“Everything is about healthy treats for birthdays. Fruit that’s either chopped up creatively or on skewers to look like a snake or something. It’s really encouraging to see that cakes and cookies are not being used.”