Friday, September 18, 2009

School's lunchtime curfew to encourage "healthy" eating

This most likely means that the kids will pig out as soon as they get out of school -- and have a lifetime aversion to the "correct" food. Coercion rarely works out well

Lunchtime at All Saints Secondary School in Glasgow was an unusually well-attended affair yesterday. Hundreds of pupils sat down to a piping hot meal of chicken curry with rice, baked potatoes with an array of fillings, and salad-filled baguettes. Then again, most had little alternative. All Saints is one of eight secondary schools in the city participating in a pilot scheme aiming to improve the diets of students. The idea is simple: keep children on school premises to prevent them from accessing artery-clogging junk food such as greasy chips and burgers, all too readily available outside.

The scheme, the first of its kind in Scotland, involves about 1,000 first year pupils. The initiative began in August and will run until the end of the school year before an evaluation study is carried out to decide whether it should be rolled out to all first year pupils in Glasgow secondary schools.

Although the scheme is operating on the basis of presumption, rather than enforcement, staff have taken to patrolling the gates in some schools. To discourage pupils from reaching the stage of attempting to sneak out, a wide range of lunchtime activities have been introduced especially for first years, including games, music, film clubs, art clubs, and even “chill-out zones” with access to iPods, Playstation and Wii games.

Steven Purcell, leader of Glasgow City Council, who attended All Saints yesterday to launch the scheme, said he had been compelled to take strong action by the city’s renowned reputation for poor health. He also told of how many parents had complained about burger vans targeting schools. “If the pilot isn’t successful, we will be honest about that, but I think most people will recognise that we’re trying to do something about the appalling health record in Glasgow,” he said.

Mr Purcell said that other local authorities have expressed interest in the scheme. A number of nearby councils have asked for details of the initiative, while others have asked for a copy of the evaluation report.

Gerry Lyons, the headteacher at All Saints, said the school spent months consulting with parents and pupils, while they were still in primary seven (P7), before introducing the scheme. With the information they gathered, the school invested in new equipment, including pogo sticks, balls, and tennis racquets, to entertain those banned from going out. “The way we are getting cooperation is designing it around them,” he said.

Mr Lyons acknowledged there had been some concerns about the children being deprived of their freedom, but said the pupils “wanted” to stay on the premises. “The great thing is they are enjoying it,” he said. “It is part of the fabric of the school.”

The main goal of the scheme is to engender among children a lifelong habit of choosing healthy food, but it is also hoped that eating more nutritionally-balanced meals will improve their behaviour. Research conducted among primary school children in Hull suggested that children who eat a healthy lunch are better behaved, better able to learn and more likely to see their general health improved.

The local authority is also keen to improve uptake of school meals. Scottish government statistics show that the uptake of school lunches by primary pupils in Glasgow is one of the highest in the country at 59 per cent, compared with a nationwide average of 48 per cent. Yet that figure falls off dramatically for secondary pupils in the city, with just 30 per cent opting for school lunches compared with a nationwide average of 39 per cent.

Theresa Harran, chairwoman of All Saints’ parent-teacher council, said the feedback from parents about the scheme has so far been positive. However, she warned against extending it to senior pupils, pointing out it could infringe the rights of children aged over 16. “We need to embed it and make it part of the school culture, then we can see what interest there is in the upper school,” she said.

Amy McLeod, a first year pupil at All Saints, was enthusiastic about being locked in school at lunchtime, believing there is a greater choice of healthy food. “My favourite is the turkey meatballs with pasta,” the 12-year-old said. Darren Brady, 11, admits he was less convinced, but came round after the introduction of a few incentives. “I would rather be outside,” he said, “but when they started the activities, like football, and scooters, I began staying in”.

Mr Lyons happily conceded the trial has not been without its problems. “There are bigger queues now,” he said. “A fifth year came up to me and said, ‘Sir, the first years have eaten all the pickled onions. Can you do something about that?’.”


Scientists discover genetic cure for red-green colour blindness

Genetic scientists have discovered a cure for colour blindness, offering hope to millions of sufferers. Scientists at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and the University of Florida restored normal vision to two colour-blind monkeys. The technique could prove to be a safe and effective cure for colour blindness and other visual disorders related to the cones in the retina.

“Although colour blindness is only moderately life-altering, we have shown we can cure a cone disease in a primate and that it can be done very safely,” said Professor William Hauswirth, an ophthalmic molecular geneticist at the University of Florida. “That is extremely encouraging for the development of therapies for human cone diseases that really are blinding.”

Those suffering from red-green colour blindness cannot distinguish between colours in the green-red-yellow part of the spectrum. This can make reading maps, using the internet and selecting a matching shirt and tie impossible. The disorder affects about 8 per cent of Caucasian males, but fewer than 0.5 per cent of females.

Normal colour vision requires three types of cone in the retina, sensitive to light in the blue, green, and red parts of the spectrum. The squirrel monkeys in the study — Dalton and Sam — lacked a gene called L opsin that codes for the red-sensitive cone. The same gene defect causes most cases of red-green colour blindness in humans. The scientists knew the monkeys were colour blind because they were trained to perform a touchscreen test. When they identified some patterns of coloured dots they were rewarded with grape juice but they could not distinguish between the grey, green and red dots.

In the study, published today in the journal Nature, scientists restored normal vision to the monkeys by injecting a virus modified to contain the L opsin gene into the retina. Over 24 weeks the light sensitivity of the cones infected with the virus shifted towards the red part of the spectrum. Then the monkeys easily distinguished the patterns of grey, green and red dots.

The success of the treatment in adult animals demonstrated that the brain is able to rewire itself to take advantage of new receptors even in adulthood. The virus used to deliver the L optin gene, called adeno-associated virus, is not known to cause disease in humans. Two years on from the study, the monkeys have shown no adverse effects from the treatment.

Scientists are now looking to obtain permission to begin trials in colour-blind humans. “People who are colour-blind feel that they are missing out,” Jay Neitz, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Washington, said. “If we could find a way to do this with complete safety in human eyes I think there would be a lot of people who would want it.”


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