Susan Bertelsen, professor of human performance and sports at Metro State College of Denver, is a proponent of P.E. teachers inserting nutrition education into their curriculum.

P.E. teachers already do a lot to alleviate the obesity epidemic plaguing American youngsters, but in all the guidelines and recommendations about how schools can improve physical activity and health, Susan Bertelsen discovered what she sees as a  gaping hole: nutrition education.

Colorado law doesn’t require it, virtually no school district requires it, and when it is included in a standard one-semester Health Education class, it’s likely to get no more than two weeks’ of attention, if any, says Bertelsen, professor of human performance and sports at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Yet nutrition education is vital to physical fitness, and Bertelsen believes middle and high school P.E. teachers are perfectly positioned to add some nutrition education into their classes in ways that make the subject interesting and relevant to students.

“Do you agree self-confidence and self-esteem are correlated to body image? Do you think teens care about how they look?” she asked at a recent gathering of P.E. teachers from around the state. “Would you like to empower them to make smart choices that increase their self-esteem?”

“We can’t do everything,” she said. “But we can do something. Adolescents want ownership. They want to make their own decisions. Knowing that nutrition is the main culprit in weight gain or weight loss, how vital is it that we include it in the curriculum? Physical activity is only one piece of the pie.”

Not all PE teachers are trained in nutrition

Bertelsen recognizes that not all physical education teachers feel competent to teach in-depth nutrition classes. But to help them, she has devised a step-by-step plan to implement nutrition education into a physical education class. If teachers can carve out 20 minutes of time, one day a week, they can draw teens into important discussions about caloric needs, reading labels, balanced diets, dangers of fast foods, weight management, and lifelong eating disciplines.

“I don’t want to take away activity time, but if I were teaching high school again, I would definitely try to do this,” Bertelsen said. “These are things that resonate with teenagers. Yes, they should start learning these things when they’re younger, and there’s a lot of good nutrition education curricula out there. But what do they remember that they learned in third grade? By high school, they need to hear these things again.”

A step-by-step guide

Bertelsen says the first step for a P.E. teacher interested in adding nutrition education into the class is to talk to the school’s health teacher. In some schools, the P.E. teacher IS the health teacher, but not always. Find out how much nutrition is being taught in the health course, then ask about collaborating on some nutrition and physical activity topics.

Mypyramid.gov is an excellent online resource for teaching about the food pyramid.

Step Two is compiling resources. Find five to seven legitimate resources that provide teachers with guidance on making complex topics simple. Supplement that with two or three places – either online or in journals – where students can log their food intake and physical activity levels.

Next, develop a list of the top seven or eight nutrition-related topics that you think are most important for students to know. Reading food labels? Assessing the legitimacy of weight loss or dietary supplement products? Understanding the food pyramid? Once you’ve determined the topics to study, figure out ways to make those topics interactive. Find projects the students can do to reinforce these lessons.

Then develop a timeline. Figure out where you could find 20 minutes a week. “If you’re on block days, and you’ve got 90 minutes, are your students active all 90 minutes? Probably not,” Bertelsen said. “You can make good use of that time, and not cut into their physical activity time.”

Determine how much time each topic needs, then create a series of brief lesson plans that involve in-class discussion and out-of-class assignments.

Bertelsen has come up with a suggested sequence of topics and possible activities, but she emphasizes that others may prefer different topics, different sequences and different activities. Above all, the topics should address things happening in the students’ lives.

“I still think PE ought to be a requirement for seniors rather than freshmen, because as seniors they’re more ready to accept it as a responsibility for a lifetime,” Bertelsen said. “Connect with them about nutrition being what makes them look good and feel good.”

Nutrition resources online

Susan Bertelsen has compiled an annotated list of trusted and reliable online resources where teachers can turn to get information as well as ideas for classroom assignments and hands-on student projects related to nutrition. Among them:

Food and Nutrition Information Center, USDA – This is the official information center website of the Agricultural Network from the Agricultural Research Service that deals with food and nutrition. FNIC is a broad-based site that is a good jumping-off point for other sources of nutrition information. The Center contains food and human nutrition materials such as books, journals and audiovisuals encompassing a wide range of topics.

USDA Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service – This service was established to ensure access to nutritious and healthful diets for all Americans. This unit administers the 15 food assistance programs of the USDA.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – Economic and Social Department – Highlights include methods by which the Food and Nutrition Division is working toward improving nutritional status worldwide and ensuring the quality and safety of the food supply. Included are links to resources on food quality, food safety, food fortification and nutrition programs.

Center for Science in the Public Interest – This nonprofit education and advocacy organization is devoted to improving the safety and nutritional quality of the food supply. Links are provided to information for youth, and reports about specific nutrition issues. A unique feature is access to the Nutrition Action Healthletter, an online publication.

Yahoo! – Health: Nutrition – A broad-based site that is useful as a starting point for surfers who are not yet focused on a specific nutrition topic or issue. This site can serve as a good resource for the beginning browser.

NutritionData – Nutrition Facts Calorie Counter – This site provides facts, in a simplified manner, about nutritional analyses for foods and recipes. It includes a searchable database by food name and information on foods from fast food restaurants.

Nutrient Data Laboratory – Food Composition Data – The place to look for food composition data provided by the Agricultural Research Service. Includes a search tool that enables the user to look up the nutrient content of more than 5,600 foods.

Nutrition.gov – An authoritative gateway to reliable information on nutrition, healthy eating, physical activity and food safety for consumers, educators and health professionals.

National Academies Press: Food and Nutrition Collection – This link provides access to the many free online reports provided by the National Academies in the subject areas of food and nutrition.

SPARK (Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids) – Physical Education and Wellness program provides some nutrition curriculum ideas and resources. Focuses mainly on school health awareness and behavior change.

Dietetics Online – Billed as the networking organization of nutrition and dietetic professionals, this site links to specialized search engines, a marketplace for related products and services, summaries of professional meetings and exhibitions and to computer and software information.

American Dietetic Association – The home page of this organization provides member service, nutrition resources, FAQs, and a “hot topics” link.

MayoClinic.com – A searchable site including such information as current health news, answers to queries from Mayo specialists, access to specific disease centers and health with other healthy lifestyle planning.

FruitsandVeggies Matter.gov – A site with tips and recipes, including easy ways to add more fruits and vegetables into daily dating patterns.

Mypyramid.gov – The new USDA food pyramid replaces “one size fits all” with a customizable eating plan.