Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Can ICT help fight child obesity?

It is said that obesity is one of the biggest health challenges we face. With millions of children and millions of adults in this weight category it is clear that the excess body fat that these people carry will increase their risks of poor health. Statistics from the National Heart Forum illuminate the trends in this area.

There are many school based initiatives too with one reported in the TES this week about the work of Shotton Hall School in Peterlee, who are using drama to educate students on how to eat healthily.

Discoveries originating in Cambridge have changed scientific thinking in thisfield which are far too complicated for me to blog about here, but covered cells, energy, heat generation and enzyme complexes over 20 years.

Studies in the context of ‘inherent disorders of the human metabolism’ illustrate that some people who are in the obesity category are there through no conscious behaviour of their own. Researchers have found that a lack of a protein called leptin or the way the body uses leptin in the brain can lead to uncontrollable appetite. (p238 The University of Cambridge and 800th Anniversary Portrait). So, it’s clear that some people need as much help as possible to control their appetite.

We can’t begin to use ICT in schools to monitor effects at this level or indeed recommend treatments for students, that is down to parent and carers interactions with the medical profession. What we can do though is use to ICT to understand the relationship between the child we are caring for and their consumption of food in school.

Early cashless catering systems did only what their name suggested; catered cashlessly. What we are now seeing within the Electronic Point of Sale arena is more and more information processing and more and more integration.

More visibility is being granted, because parents and carers can set preferences regarding the quantities and items that a youngster selects for their school lunch. For example, schools, parents, even the student can also restrict certain items –where a child has a nut allergy or a maximum weekly portion number of ‘unhealthy’ food types

More integration is helpful, because systems will allow parents and carers to log in from home to add money to their child’s account and at the same time modify the selection preferences. We are also seeing card and biometric systems that are not only being used for catering but used for registration, access control and also at community kiosks for account creation, and to refresh passwords when they have been forgotten.

We should also remember that many of these systems are competing to evolve into a market leading position, so if you have an idea and the system doesn’t do it now, many companies will develop a functionality if it really adds value. Examples might be if you want to tie eating habits of youngsters to a particular sport to ensure they have the right type of nourishment ,or if you want to reward students with school merits for healthy eating automatically.

Clearly these systems are only one part of a bigger picture but they can certainly help to fight obesity when combined with other school initiatives.

Brendan Geoghegan