The Ministry of Education’s new Chief Education Health and Nutrition Advisor promotes risky play and rejects official advice on low-fat eating. He’s expecting to clash with other high-profile public health advocates, as Eloise Gibson reports.

Grant Schofield, the brand-new, first-ever advisor on health and nutrition to the education ministry, is ready for a scrap.

As a vocal participant in the biggest debate in nutrition – to embrace saturated fat, or not? – the director of AUT’s optimistically-named Human Potential Centre is involved in an ongoing argument over New Zealand’s low-fat healthy eating guidelines.

The spat has been conducted in the letters pages of The Lancet, the influential British medical journal. First, New Zealand’s Jim Mann, Lisa Te Morenga, Rod Jackson, and Boyd Swinburn – some of the country’s leading voices on obesity and nutrition – wrote a letter in the Lancet defending the New Zealand dietary guidelines, saying the latest meta-reviews of trials suggest that there are big benefits from replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated ones, and no benefits to be gained from replacing carbohydrates with fats.

Schofield co-authored a retort in the Lancet questioning the evidence for saying low-fat dairy and meat is healthier than full-fat and querying advice to replace meat and dairy fats with vegetable oils, nuts and lean meats.

Mann and co. wrote back in the Lancet, raising their professional eyebrows at Schofield’s claims; then Schofield replied on his website, and so-on. 

As the Ministry of Education’s newly-minted Chief Education Health and Nutrition Advisor, the promoter of a low-carb, high-fat diet expects to feel some push-back when he starts telling the Government his ideas for improving nutrition in schools. He says, “Bring it on.”
While there’s much that everyone involved agrees on – kids and adults should eat less sugar, more fruit and vegetables, more whole foods and less processed rubbish – they disagree on the merits of full fat dairy and meat versus diets high in wholegrain cereals and legumes. 

Already, dietitians are asking questions about his appointment and whether it will lead to public confusion when it comes to fighting childhood obesity.

Official health ministry advice to school kids is to fill up on wholegrain carbs, drink low-fat milk and ration the likes of butter and meat fat, guidance Schofield whole-heartedly rejects but which influential public health researchers say remains the best option based on the overall weight of evidence.

The terms of Schofield’s employment mean he won’t have to conform with the official line: AUT will continue to employ him, but will loan him to the Ministry of Education, half-time, in return for the Government paying half his salary. The independence is crucial, he says. “As soon as you become an actual public servant your job is to enact Government policy and that impedes your ability to have free and frank discussions, and it’s important for my role that I still do that,” he says. “I’ll be challenging convention. The tradition of science is that hypotheses and convention are challenged and revised and to me that’s been the massive problem with public health, especially public health nutrition. You put your head up and expect that generally it will be shot off, and I think we’ve lacked progress because of that.”

As he sees it, obesity statistics show that the current advice isn’t working. Yet his butter-happy diet is still rejected by the likes of the Heart Foundation. Is he expecting push-back? “I’m totally expecting it, and bring it on,” he says. “For us to think we know all the answers already and it’s just matter of implementing them is utterly naïve, so if we are going to make progress in public health there is going to have to be robust, controversial and public scientific debate and I’ll be welcoming that, pushing and challenging these guys and I hope they challenge me.”

“You put your head up and expect that generally it will be shot off, and I think we’ve lacked progress because of that.”

A psychologist by training, Schofield’s professional online persona centres on phrases like “thinking outside the box”, personal improvement and “being the best you can be.” He’s a semi-professional triathlete, and he first tried a low-carb, fat-embracing diet on himself, and liked the results. The nation’s newest cabinet adviser co-wrote a book, What the Fat? Fat’s IN, Sugar’s OUT (“It’s time to flip the pyramid and break free of the fat phobia”).

Satisfied readers whose testimonials are quoted the book’s website include Gary, who says he staved off pre-diabetes, and Cindy, who, at age 53, says she “got her high school butt back”. The most prominent endorsement is from Australian celebrity chef and author Pete Evans, aka Paleo Pete, who has been in the news for his anti-fluoride, anti-sunscreen messages (he also reportedly promoted a bone broth for babies that could have contained deadly Vitamin A levels).

It turns out Schofield – whose telephone demeanour is unvarnished and straightforward – doesn’t have an unlimited appetite for controversy. He is careful to distinguish between his agreement with Evans when it comes to the benefits of paleo-style diets and some of the Australian’s other, kookier views. “With his sunscreen stuff for example he’s moved past the edge that I feel comfortable with,” he says. “I’m not Pete. We do share a philosophy around whole fresh food and we have shared some sort of common battle with the establishment. But in recent times, with the vaccines and the sunscreen … yeah. It could turn out to be that there is toxic stuff in sunscreen but I’m unaware of anything that shows that definitively and in the meantime melanoma is an issue.”

So what kinds of things will Schofield be promoting in schools? For a start, it won’t be all food-related. Half his work involves fitness, not nutrition, and he’s especially interested in extending the physical curriculum up to reach more teenagers. Though some of his ideas about activity break with tradition – encouraging risky play and less rule-bound playgrounds, for example – he says there is less resistance to trying new things in the field of physical fitness. “One thing I’m pretty keen on – and research backs this up is – we are trying to over-engineer how our primary school kids are active. If you just plunk them outside on the playground and don’t worry about any rules … rather than the kids hurting themselves or bullying each other, which is what you might think of in a lord of the flies type scenario, virtually every kid gets up and start moving around. I’d like to see more emphasis on free play and allowing kids to climb trees and involve themselves in contact games if they choose to,” he says.

Promoting a more free-range playing style may mean leaving areas of grass untended, and letting trees lie where they fall, he says. He’s been involved in efforts to try this at schools in Swanson, West Auckland and Dunedin. “We tried to build structures and the kids thought they were boring so we stopped mowing the lawn in places and when trees died down we just left them … and we were a bit more laissez faire with the rules. Obviously, you don’t want kids to be in danger but the interesting thing is you end up with a school that doesn’t look like a house and garden magazine, which is cool for the kids but not necessarily for the adults.” His other big goal is keeping physical activity going into high school, when children get more advanced academically but often drop out of organised exercise. “We know when our kids get physically fit it can improve their learning by about 10 percent. Yet it’s a time when we start to abandon school physical education curriculum and take the emphasis off that because we want the focus on academic subjects. It just doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be sport, there is a whole bunch of stuff from dance to other social type things and often at that age they are quite happy to get involved in organising it themselves. I was just talking to Les Mills and they said they are happy to offer their fitness and dance training classes to high school kids. If something like that takes off in schools, I’ll be really happy to support it.”

“We are trying to over-engineer how our primary school kids are active.”

As for Schofield’s intentions when it comes to kids and what they eat, there is a precedent. A successful meal plan based on his dietary ideas was implemented at Dilworth school’s rural south Auckland campus. The revamped cafeteria offerings were notable for restricting access to oranges but included a daily breakfast of sausages. Schofield mildly takes issue with Newsroom singling out the two most controversial aspects of the menu, but says the results spoke for themselves. “We’re picking the two things most on the edge there, but it’s true they didn’t give them free access to sugary fruits. And the modern sausage, especially the ones you usually get in boarding school, doesn’t usually resemble anything that was recently on an animal so I’m not too sure about the sausages, but I’m all for other types of fleshy meats,” he says. “But the results speak for themselves, you know? The boys continued to grow but got leaner.”

Improving diets in other schools may be more challenging: “Dilworth is a little bit out there in the sense it’s a rural campus, you can’t walk down to the dairy so it doesn’t resemble what most New Zealanders get exposed to,” he says. But he applauds much of what is already going on. “A whole bunch of school have gone milk or water only and that’s been really good. Other (Decile 1) schools I’ve done some work with in Hastings, the kids were turning up with no lunch or pies and the principal said just don’t bring anything and for a dollar a day we’ll do all lunches. They have coleslaw, eggs, you can make sandwiches or have it on its own, fruit and water and they just do that every day, and they cook a breakfast twice a week. Schools will choose those different things and it makes a massive difference to how kids learn. Probably the richer schools won’t choose to do either of those things but they don’t have the same issues in many ways.”

There is one key point where he and his opponents agree, despite their other public divisions. Improving nutrition is about much more than pitting fats against carbs, and we’d all be better off if we ate more whole, fresh foods and less food from packets. Within those basic boundaries, there’s room for a range of healthy diets, as Schofield and his detractors agree. “I think a lot of that nutrition stuff is overblown, at one level, there is a lot that people agree on. Food that was out there in nature growing on trees or plants is a great thing to eat, if it comes in a packet it probably doesn’t meet the basic definition (of nutrition), and when our kids are eating 17 teaspoons a day of sugar that’s far too much,” he says.

Anyway, perhaps a science adviser can’t win, no matter whether he is tame or controversial. Shortly after the Government announced his new role, Schofield appeared on TVNZ’s 7 Sharp to help presenter Toni Street make her children’s lunches. Much of the advice was standard fare: restrict sugar, give them less packaged food and lots of fruit and vegetables. Some of it was less mainstream: kids don’t need carb-laden sandwiches and it’s fine to eat your meat with the fat on. The voice-over dutifully noted that the high-fat stuff was controversial. Street appeared happy with the lunchbox advice, but her co-host back at the studio, Mike Hosking, was appalled. “Less sugar … we know that … this guy’s getting paid to tell us what we already know!” he complained, loudly.

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