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Research packs positive messages for lunchbox health

Michelle and kids learning about healthy eating

Parents and carers of Hunter school children will have a helping hand in the kitchen to create healthier lunchboxes, with the support of a University of Newcastle research project.

Funded through a $500,000 grant from nib foundation, opens in a new tab researchers have developed Swap What's Packed in the lunchbox: SWAP-It, a parent support program delivered through an app.

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Luke Wolfenden*, opens in a new tab, said SWAP-It aimed to address the nutritional intake of children to align with dietary guidelines and prevent unhealthy weight gain in childhood.

"Good nutrition is one of the most important determinants of children's health and wellbeing," A/Prof Wolfenden said.

"Within the Hunter New England region, more than 135,000 lunchboxes are packed for primary-aged school children every day. These lunchboxes provide the fuel for young growing minds, containing a third of their daily intake.

"However, packed within these lunchboxes, are more than 270,000 items of junk food, cleverly packaged and presented to children to be consumed each day.

"The consumption of these foods is contributing to excessive energy intake, unhealthy weight gain, diabetes and other health issues that impact on children's physical and mental health and can lead to chronic health conditions in adulthood," he added.

Research shows dietary behaviours in childhood track into adulthood and are predictive of weight gain and future chronic disease.

To address the limitations of previous tactics to improve lunchbox content, the research team established a partnership with leading national provider of a school-parent communication app - 'Skoolbag', to develop and integrate the lunchbox program within the app.

The SWAP-It program is a technological solution to the challenge of reaching, engaging and changing the behaviours of parents.

"We see the SWAP-It program as a means to support parents to pack healthy nutritious foods in their child's lunchbox on a daily basis, and therefore supporting children to play, learn and thrive at school," A/Prof Wolfenden said.

The program includes three components: SWAP-It nutrition guidelines; weekly support messages via push notifications; and resources such as hyperlinks to useful information, lunchbox planners, drink bottles, ice bricks and shopping lists as visual prompts to pack healthy lunchbox foods at home.

"The primary SWAP-It message to parents is to SWAP in healthy foods and SWAP out less healthy foods in the lunchbox – every day," A/Prof Wolfenden said.

SWAP-It will be delivered to 150 primary schools across the Hunter New England region, directly benefitting approximately 75,000 students and 60,000 families over the three year period.

The support program proposed for the Hunter New England region has the potential to improve the nutritional content of up to 75,000 lunch/snacks each day, 15 million per year.

"Swapping just one non-core snack with an everyday snack item will, on average, decrease the calories within the lunchbox by up to 220kj, averting future weight gain among children," A/Prof Wolfenden said.

nib foundation Director, Michelle McPherson said with obesity posing a significant health and social burden estimated to cost our country $58 billion per year, and 27% of Australian children now classified as obese or overweight, there was an imperative to improve the food habits of the next generation.

"Implementing a widely accessible program that prevents unhealthy weight gain from occurring in the first place is recommended as one of the most cost effective approaches to improving community health and wellbeing," Mrs McPherson said.

"We believe the SWAP-It program has the potential to do exactly that, by harnessing the power of an existing technology to provide an accessible and low cost solution to engage a large number of families in a conversation about the benefits of a healthy lunchbox for their children," she added.

nib foundation will provide $499,500 in funding to support the project's development over the next three years.

*Associate Professor Wolfenden researches through the University's Priority Research Centre for Health Behaviour and the HMRI Public Health research group. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

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