School chefs Robert McDonald and Craig Johnston say they knew something had to change after seeing too many overweight students.
A triangular hunk of cheese. An apple. A handful of walnuts. This is morning tea.
“Sir, are there any oranges,” asks one student, testing the chef. He knows he’s not allowed the fruit – it’s reserved as a treat at New Zealand’s biggest boarding school.
The boys-only school, which has campuses in Auckland City and rural south Auckland, began revamping its cafeteria menu last year in an attempt to help students slim down.
“We saw a couple of our boys that were leaving the campus basically in that morbidly obese sort of stage, and it was quite disheartening,” says lead chef Craig Johnston. “I was like ‘hang on, we’re just leaving a place and getting bigger and fatter, and all the complications arise from that’.”
Known as the “low carbohydrate, high-fat diet” (LCHF), sugars were cut from the menu, carbohydrates were replaced with whole foods and good fats using nutrition advice from dietician Dr Caryn Zinn and Dr Grant Schoffield.
Canned fruit, processed cereals and yoghurts went out the door for breakfast to be replaced with a daily cooked breakfast of sausages, scrambled eggs, tomatoes and more.
Cakes and slices were kicked to the curb in favour of chicken wings, or tuna, tomatoes and avocado on toast. Boiled eggs, cheeses and nuts have also been introduced.
Dilworth is the largest charitable education trust in the country, providing private school education to 640 students in “straitened circumstances”.
The students attend junior and senior campuses in Auckland, while the rural campus hosts year 9 boys.
Needing to lose a little weight himself, Johnston decided to personally test the diet before letting the students and their parents know he was planning to turn their eating habits upside down.
“I did it – and I lost 27 kilos, so it works.”
Losing the weight saw Johnston reverse a number of serious health issues. He is now able to exercise and has become something of a role model to the students.
Head chef overall Robert McDonald says the menu change has been controversial but is paying off. The school has a high population of Maori and Pacific Islanders who, he says, may tend to be heavier than other students.
Pasifika students make up 38 per cent of the student body, Europeans make up 27.5 per cent, Maori 24 per cent and Asian 7.5 per cent.
The ethnicity of the schools students caused controversy last month when four members of the Old Boys Association questioned it was an “imbalance” and were consequently suspended.
Individually monitored weekly – the boys have lost centimetres from their waistlines and seen reductions in their Body Mass Indexes.
“We’ve still got boys getting taller, fitter and stronger. We don’t want them shrinking,” Johnston says.
“It’s not a diet, it’s not about restricting the food that the boys are being given or getting. It’s about giving them the appropriate quantity – but whole foods which are low in carbohydrates and therefore low in sugar.”
If there is any impediment to the boys’ weightloss, it is school holidays, with many coming back to class sporting bigger bellies after returning to their regular eating patterns at home, McDonald says.
Head boy Kevin Le agrees, saying a return home over the Easter break meant gorging on Easter eggs.
Despite finding it difficult at first, Le says the boys have enjoyed the change and appreciated learning about the effects of sugar.
“That’s good in terms of putting us all on the right track I think all the boys will take that on board, at least. Boys will take on other foods as well, but the whole healthy living thing will have an impact.”
The move to a new diet has meant a slight rise in food costs for the school but McDonald would recommend LCHF to any other school.
“I would give them the recommendation that this is working, and is beneficial towards the health and wellbeing of any person and my recommendation would be that they should follow it.
“At the end of the day if you take out as many free sugars and processed foods, and replace them with whole foods and natural ingredients that are cooked in natural fats, what can go wrong?”
Education Ministry associate deputy secretary Karl Le Quesne reckons the department would support efforts by any school or tertiary institute to promote better eating choices.
The ministry is working with health and other agencies to put the childhood obesity plan into action to help fight child obesity.
Health Ministry principal adviser – public health Harriette Carr says the education sector is an important setting for teaching kids how to establish and maintain a healthy diet and activity messages.
“It is important to ensure that children and young people are equipped with the knowledge, attitudes and supportive environments to enable them to establish healthy eating behaviours and attain and maintain a healthy weight.”
And the school’s dietary trailblazing could even boost academic achievement – though the students are already doing pretty well on that score: some 98 per cent of Dilworth students gained level two NCEA in 2015, well up on the national pass rate for boys of 73 per cent.