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Coming to Our Senses on Education and Nutrition

5 minute read

As classrooms “go digital,” educators should consider smell and taste as underutilized teaching tools, especially for teaching kids nutrition.

There’s strong evidence for smell and taste being central to nutrition education dating back a century to the pioneering work of physician Maria Montessori, whose schools worldwide continue to prioritize what Dr. Montessori referred to as the “education of the senses.” There is also recent evidence that multisensory nutrition education reduces classroom absenteeism and improves standardized test scores, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine’s task force on childhood obesity. Changes in health behaviors, such as hand washing, hydration and reducing sugar intake, lead to fewer sick days. And activities such as cooking with recipes, reading nutrition labels and counting calories appear to greatly improve math test scores, possibly because they utilize more senses than does most math classwork.

There’s a biochemical basis for incorporating taste and smell into nutrition education. Taste and smell, which are referred to as the chemosenses because they “talk” to the brain via molecules, guide our behavior and level of motivation. Studies using functional MRI map chemosensory brain activity in the brainstem, a control center for instinctual behaviors like sleeping, eating and the fight-and-flight response. (In contrast, sight and sound are largely registered in the neocortex, the part of the brain used for cognition.) Food scents and taste are powerful influencers because of food’s central role in species survival. The gaming and cosmetic industries use food fragrances to incentivize behavior and purchases. In other words, the nose knows–less in the test-taking way we usually assess knowledge and more through pathways linked closely to behavior change and lifelong learning.

Chemosensory learning does not stop in elementary school. In fact, taste acquisition and adult food preferences are honed during early adolescence.

The case for incorporating chemosensory learning into middle and high school curricula has never been stronger. The sophistication of fast food marketing requires today’s youth to be especially discerning. Children and teens also have more discretionary spending and a wider array of food choices. Given the epidemic of nutrition-related chronic diseases, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach to equipping our nation’s youth.

A rise in chronic diseases in youth has led to a rise in the use of prescription medications to treat them. One in 4 insured American youth takes a prescription medication on a regular basis, according to the Medco 2010 Drug Trend Report. Many of these medications have not been studied in youth, and those that have been studied exhibit nuanced, individualized and sometimes adverse effects on food selection and appetite. Appetite-related side effects are not limited to the medication’s duration and can be long-lasting. However, teaching kids to fine-tune their senses of smell and taste can minimize these side effects by helping people realize when they’re full, and is also key to mindful eating.

The digital age makes new and innovative ways of incorporating the chemosenses possible. One example is “flipped classrooms,” where technology-driven learning can be used at home or in during extracurricular activities, which then frees up class time for student discussion and presentations. The flipped classroom approach makes it possible to use smell and taste in virtual classrooms as well, and in settings where food allergies may limit such experiences in the classroom. Encouraging students to engage in nutrition activities in the home has long been used in public health interventions known as a “child-as-change-agent approach.”

Community partnerships have long been a way for public health nutritionists and educators to work together to achieve sustainable behavior change among youth. The web has also become a catalyst for more diverse stakeholders in nutrition education: STEM programs using nutrition as a gateway science, athletic groups seeking to improve the sports performance of youth, agriculture programs such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America, and the National Park Service linking healthy parks with healthy people for their upcoming centennial.

Peer leadership is another well-established method for engaging adolescents in positive health behaviors. The web and social media have allowed youth peer leaders to expand beyond traditional roles such as camp leaders, afterschool tutors and buddy program participants. In NutriBee, an early adolescent nutrition intervention I researched and developed at Johns Hopkins, high school students come up with projects relating their personal interests to nutrition, which then comprise the online component of NutriBee’s curriculum. The curriculum, aimed at slightly younger kids, incorporates the chemosenses, touch and social interaction.

The chemosenses can help translate nutrition education into healthful behavior changes and positive actions. Getting taste and smell back into the teaching toolbox can therefore impact public health. And the digital age is fertile soil for sprouting the innovation necessary to do that.

Ingrid Kohlstadt, MD, MPH, is a physician graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Dr. Kohlstadt is a Faculty Associate at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and double-board certified in preventive medicine and nutrition. She edited textbooks Food and Nutrients in Disease Management and Advancing Medicine with Food and Nutrients, Second Edition. Dr. Kohlstadt has worked for the CDC, the FDA, the USDA, the Indian Health Service and the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, and serves on the review board of Nutrition Journal.

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