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'Kids throw milk at each other...it's a waste of public money'

Sri Lanka students shun nutritious food and dairy due to raft of ‘social and cultural factors’

Millette Burgos

By Millette Burgos+

28-Feb-2017
Last updated on 28-Feb-2017 at 06:49 GMT2017-02-28T06:49:00Z

Sri Lanka students are shunning healthy meals. ©iStock
Sri Lanka students are shunning healthy meals. ©iStock

Students in Sri Lanka are not eating healthy diets and are shunning school milk programmes due to social and cultural factors, and until these are tackled the country’s double burden of malnutrition will remain, experts say.

Other factors for poor diets include problems around education, living conditions, and government health policies.

Researchers from Oxford University, University of Colombo, and the Australian National University found that consumption of fresh eggs and milk were often discouraged, because of a belief among the community that these foods can produce too much phlegm.

Girls also shy away from meat to avoid increase in body fat and weight gain.

“The government provides funds to buy fresh milk for children in our schools," a study participant reported. "Our teachers spend a lot of time to administer the distribution of milk. But parents ask children not to drink fresh milk due to these cultural beliefs that it can precipitate cough and phlegm."

“Children just throw milk at each other and it is a waste of our time and public money. My school decided not to accept government funds for fresh milk.”

Meanwhile, nutrient-rich foods abundant to the area, like Korakan, a type of millet flour and drumstick leaves Murunga are associated with lower-class status groups, and therefore shunned.

“People often avoid these foods as they fear that their social class will be determined by what they consume, even though such food items are highly nutritious and easily accessible,” said researchers.

School studies

The study, which was set in Moneragala and Ampara – two ethnically diverse and rural districts of Sri Lanka, constructed a conceptual framework for the influences affecting students’ dietary choices.

Participants in the study suggested including subjects such as nutrition and agriculture, with a focus on food production, into the school curriculum.

They also pointed out that national food programmes may be creating a culture of dependency. While they often succeeded in providing children with nutritious meals, school principals observed that parents had come to rely on them for their children’s main source of nutrition

“Participants felt that these policies took the responsibility for food provision away from the parents. They reported that a number of parents whose children received an afternoon meal in school did not provide their children with breakfast at home,” said the study.

Living and parents’ working conditions contributed to students’ food choices as well. Having parents that work shifts in industrial sectors leaves them little time to prepare meals at home, therefore most students often eat unhealthy processed foods.

 “Our findings also suggest that interventions to promote a healthy diet will require the involvement of stakeholders from many sectors of the government, non-governmental organisations and the community,” researchers said.

“Only from understanding these barriers and finding ways to counter them can we hope to reduce the double burden of under- and over-nutrition the country is currently suffering.”

 

Source: Health Promotion International

DOI: 10.1093/heapro/dav056

“Barriers to healthy dietary choice amongst students in Sri Lanka as perceived by school principals and staff”

Authors: Nick Townsend, Julianne Williams, et al

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