Nutrition Workshop Aimed at Making Healthy Choices

PhD students share knowledge to dispel diet myths

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Maude Perreault, left, and Kaitlin Roke

Maude Perreault, left, and Kaitlin Roke

Which type of egg is better for you: brown or white? If you think all brown foods such as brown rice and whole wheat flour are healthier, you probably think that brown eggs are a healthier option. In fact, brown eggs are no better than white ones: the difference in shell colour is due to the type of hen that laid the egg.

The belief that brown eggs are more nutritious is a popular misconception – even among girls in Grades 7 to 9 who have participated in a workshop called Let’s Talk Nutrition. The workshop is part of the Let’s Talk Science program, which promotes science to young people.

Let’s Talk Nutrition was developed by Maude Perreault, who is completing her PhD at McMaster University after graduating with an M.Sc. from U of G in 2013, and Kaitlin Roke, a PhD student in U of G’s Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences. They decided to develop a nutrition workshop to extend their research interests and to share their love for science.

“I remember when I was that age — it was really intimidating,” says Perreault of her first impression of science. She wants to help other girls overcome their apprehension about studying science by making research applicable and fun.

The workshop ran for the past two summers, and the PhD students plan to run it again this summer with a focus on nutrigenomics – how genes play a role in diet and disease. Some of the grade-school participants have attended the workshops both summers.

“They’re influenced by so many different things,” says Roke, “and diet and nutrition become such a focus, but they don’t really have enough education or understanding to always make the right choices. We don’t know where they’re getting their information from.” Parents, friends and the media are popular sources, but they may not always be accurate.

Roke says some of the students’ beliefs were “a little bit scary,” adding that one of the most concerning misconceptions was the girls’ obsession with calories. They avoided high-calorie foods without taking into account other factors, such as vitamins, minerals and fibre. An avocado, for example, is high in calories, but it also contains healthy fats and other nutrients.

“A calorie isn’t always a bad thing,” says Roke. It’s just a unit of energy. “It’s like putting fuel in your car,” adds Perreault. “It’s the same idea.”

As a registered dietitian, Perreault says she wasn’t surprised by the students’ misinformation, given that they often rely on teen magazines for health information. “We want them to be confident so that they can criticize what they read and what they hear to make better choices,” she says. “People tend to believe whatever they hear.”

That also applies to following “health gurus” who call foods either “good” or “bad,” says Perreault, adding that people can eat sweets occasionally as part of a healthy balanced diet. “We really discussed variety and moderation,” adds Roke. “It’s not about eliminating or avoiding; it’s about choosing what works best.”

They led a “myth busters” activity designed to dispel widely believed yet inaccurate ideas about food and nutrition. In the egg exercise, for example, all of the students believed that brown eggs were healthier.

In another activity, they asked students what they thought constituted a “healthy plate.” The PhD students recommend dividing your plate into four quarters: one quarter should contain protein in the form of meat or alternatives, one quarter should contain grain products, and half should contain fruits and/or vegetables.

As the workshop progressed, the participants started to question what they had learned from other sources. Some said they planned to ask their parents more questions about their nutritional knowledge. “I was pleased to hear that,” says Perreault. “It was only a two-hour workshop, and they were already starting to learn more and see ways to apply that knowledge. Ultimately that’s the goal behind any knowledge translation activity.”

Perreault and Roke focused on engaging the students with collaborative learning activities. Instead of lecturing them about healthy habits, they provided tips on making better food choices.

“It’s about taking what you do in the lab and being able to bring it outside, whether it’s in a workshop or community event,” says Roke. “I think that makes a strong scientist – someone who can talk about their research in another context.”

The workshop was a runner-up in the Let’s Talk Science CIHR-Synapse national award competition for best volunteer-led, health-related outreach initiative. Perreault and Roke also participated in the annual Ms Infinity conference at U of G May 10. The conference is designed to expose girls and young women to science and to spark their interest in science studies and careers.