How to get children to eat healthy

Healthy Buddy session inspires children from community to community to eat healthier and follow COVID-19 precautionary measures.

Zhanna Ulikhanyan
HealtyBuddy
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Margaryan
28 September 2021

Tell us what your child eats for breakfast, and we’ll tell you how healthy his or her breakfast is. Normally, it would be expected that half of the plate is filled with fruits and vegetables, one fourth is protein and the other one fourth is carbohydrates. This is merely the secret to a healthy plate so that children have enough energy to get through the day, excel at school and develop to their full potential.

Unfortunately, the available data speaks otherwise. According to UNICEF review of school-aged children nutrition in Central Europe and Asia, one in four adolescents aged 10-24 in Armenia is overweight or obese. Only half of the boys and girls eat fruits and vegetables every day. Moreover, 56% of adolescent girls and 50% of boys in Armenia eat sweets every day, which is the highest rate compared to other countries in Central Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, only 23% of our teenagers are physically active for 60 minutes a day.

HealtyBuddy
UNICEF Armenia

“Adolescence is a period of rapid brain development, so this period is a unique window of opportunity to influence the overall development of the child, which we should not miss. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to malnutrition, as their nutritional needs increase due to the rapid growth in that period. In fact, today, our adolescents are at risk of being overweight because unhealthy food is widely available, because they lead a sedentary lifestyle, and because healthy eating is not so fashionable across the country. Children and caregivers lack necessary information about healthy nutrition and often do not understand the repercussions,”

shared Liana Hovakimyan, UNICEF Health Specialist.
HealtyBuddy
UNICEF
HealtyBuddy
UNICEF

In response to the lack of information among children of 6-15 on healthy nutrition, UNICEF, Ministry of Health of Armenia and Family Academy NGO put together a special edutainment session in 2019 - Healthy Buddy, to educate them on healthy eating and lifestyle. In 2021, the Healthy Buddy team is set to meet with at least 4,200 children from 35 communities across Armenia - Shirak, Kotayk, Aragatsotn, Lori, Tavush marzes and capital city of Yerevan.

During the session, children hear from various specialists, analyze their own eating habits, while also play a number games, including compete in teams at the end of the session to answer questions about nutrition and COVID-19 through an online platform that displays their results real-time.

HealtyBuddy
UNICEF
HealtyBuddy
UNICEF

During the session, Lydia Ayvazyan, dietician, illustrates to children how many spoons of sugar they consume in each snack. Ice cream would normally contain 4 spoons of sugar, a glass of sweet carbonated drink would have at least 6, a ‘natural’ juice or a bar of chocolate would have at least 5 spoons, an instant coffee drink would have 4 spoons, while a tablespoon of ketchup would contain 2 spoons of sugar. Participants then learn that a healthy diet on daily basis should not contain over 25 grams (or about 5 tablespoons) of sugar intake.

“We have already visited 27 communities this year together with UNICEF, and we see the same picture from community to community, school to school - many children share that they have only tea for breakfast with 3-5 spoons of sugar, most do not eat fruits and vegetables every day, instead everyone eats sweets. Fast food, carbonated drinks, and sweets have become common food for children of this age. By not getting enough energy at breakfast, they try to make up for it with readily available fast carbs,”

noted Lydia after meeting with children in Gandzakar village of Tavush marz.
HealtyBuddy
UNICEF

“I like sweets very much. But today, when I visually saw how many spoons I consume a day, it made me sick. Now I have to review my diet and at least reduce sweets a little, do some sports,”

said Lia, 11, after the session and proceeded to play football with friends.

“Unfortunately, I do not eat very well. To be honest, I didn’t even imagine that it was so important. I should try to eat more fruits and vegetables. I also really liked the motivation talk with Gor Petrosyan. It gave me wings, and now I consider it possible to achieve my dreams. I would have really liked that this session could be more extensive and span over some days,”

shared Meline, 13 (on the right).
HealtyBuddy
UNICEF
HealtyBuddy
UNICEF

“We do not have a cafeteria at our school. There is a kiosk outside where we buy buns, hamburgers, sweets. Of course, Lydia mentioned that we should not eat them every day, but what can we do, shall we stay hungry? It would be good if we had a cafeteria with normal food on display, such as dairy products, bananas, apples, as they said in the Healthy Buddy session,”

said Kamo, 13 (on the left).

And Kamo is on point! It starts with awareness and knowledge, but the enabling environment, in other words, the opportunities and the food that surround children or is at eye level at the grocery store, are super important too.

UNICEF and Ministry of Health plan to continue addressing the issue of lack of information about healthy nutrition and lifestyle among children and caregivers. Among other efforts, the Government of Armenia also plans to fully cover the school feeding programme through the state budget by 2023 to ensure that school-age children are provided with the nutrition they need.