Emerging Issues for Student Health Education

A Primer on Plant-Based Nutrition

Environmental health, animal welfare, cost-savings, increased energy, weight management, and radiant skin are just a few reasons that individuals from various cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, and age groups are pursuing a plant-based lifestyle. And students are no exception. As plant-based nutrition continues to grow in popularity, schools will have many opportunities to support and educate students (and the community) about the health benefits and potential challenges of plant-based eating.

What is a plant-based diet? A plant-based diet consists primarily of foods that are high in fiber and phytonutrients – fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, legumes, and oils. However, individuals who focus on plant-based eating may occasionally consume meat and dairy products, which makes plant-based diet different from a vegetarian or vegan regimen.

A plant-based diet has many health benefits. In addition to being linked to improved neurological function, an important factor in student learning and achievement, plant-based diets carry lower risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancers, and type 2 diabetes.

But despite its benefits, a plant-based diet has potential challenges. Some of those challenges include risk of low protein, vitamin, and mineral intake. For example, low amounts of vitamin D and calcium can increase risk of fractures due to bone demineralization. This type of deficiency has serious implications for students playing sports and other physical activities. Dark leafy green vegetables and milk alternatives such as almond, soy, or rice can help replenish the daily requirement of vitamin D and calcium; while beans, lentils, and soy products can help make up for protein deficiencies.

School-wide events, extracurricular activities, lesson plans, and staff training are just a few ways that schools can support students pursuing a plant-based lifestyle while encouraging others to increase their plant-based nutrition. Regular school-wide events that focus on plant-based eating (e.g., Meatless Mondays) are great ways to introduce students to new and healthy meal options.  Afterschool programs or parent engagement activities are another way schools can raise awareness of plant-based nutrition. Lesson plans focused on plant-based eating can be integrated into health education and other curricula. Finally, schools can provide education and training for food service staff on how to prepare nutritious, plant-based recipes.

How does raising awareness of plant-based nutrition in schools modify the previous nutritional guidance given to students? Studies show that students are not consuming the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. By focusing on plant-based eating and its benefits, schools can reinforce nutritional guidelines and encourage students to make healthier choices.

Whether a student wants to improve the environment, enhance their physical appearance, increase their energy, or become an animal welfare advocate, they will need proper education and support to get the maximum benefits of a plant-based diet. Creating a diet that is both flexible and tailored to meet their individual needs is key to a successful plant-based lifestyle.

Marijuana (Cannabis) Legalization: Implications for Youth Use Prevention

Worried teenagerDespite increasing legalization, laws in every state still prohibit teens from possessing or using marijuana for recreation. Virginia law, for example, carries a penalty for anyone under 21 years of age found in possession of marijuana or marijuana products in public.

So why has daily marijuana use increased significantly among middle school and young high school students since 2018?

Efforts to legalize marijuana across the country and the mixed media messages of popular culture promulgated through television, music, and the internet are spreading the misperception that marijuana is a harmless, all natural, non-addictive substance with no serious side effects.

According to Dr. Susan Weiss, a scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), studies on adolescent behavior have found that as teens’ perception of risk decreases, their risk take behavior, i.e., marijuana use, increases.

What is marijuana?

Marijuana is Cannabis. It is made up of seeds, leaves, flowers, and stems from the cannabis plant. People use it in several forms, including dried and smoked, vaped, or ingested in baked goods. Marijuana contains over 400 hundred chemicals. Two main chemicals are non-psychoactive CBD (Cannabidiol) and psychoactive THC (Delta-9-tetrahydrocannbidio). Research studies show that, while CBD is non-addictive and non-intoxication, THC, however, is addictive and can have adverse effects on the brain.

How does marijuana work?

In the 1990s, scientists discovered a biological system in the brain called the endocannabinoid system. This system consists of three parts: endocannabinoids, cellular receptors, and enzymes. When brain cells receive messages from other cells, they release endocannabinoids that bind to cellular receptors acting as an “off switch” that lets cells know the message has been received. Enzymes eventually break down the endocannabinoids, and the cycle repeats itself. Endocannabinoids are critical to creating balance in the brain and regulating functions such as memory, motor skills, and emotions.

When THC enters the brain, it inhibits the normal function of the endocannabinoid system by binding to cell receptors. It then causes a release of dopamine creating a “high” or a feeling of pleasure that people get from marijuana. Dopamine helps the brain remember the pleasurable experience, and over time it trains the brain to seek out drugs over other experiences that produce feelings of reward. The pleasurable feelings created by the release of dopamine is one reason people use marijuana repeatedly, which can lead to addiction. The developing adolescent brain relies heavily on the reward center of the limbic system, which makes teens more sensitive to the effects of dopamine and at greater risk of addiction.

Short and Long-term Consequences of Marijuana use

In addition to the risk of addiction, marijuana use leads to other short- and long-term consequences. Short-term effects from marijuana use include feelings of relaxation or demotivation; increased heart rate; loss of coordination and slower reaction times; altered sense of time; increased appetite; and feelings of anxiety, fear, distrust, and panic. Marijuana use over a long period of time can cause respiratory problems and make it difficult to retain and process information.  

Marijuana use among teens increases the risk of academic and athletic failure. THC impacts the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for cognitive functions including attention, critical thinking, processing, and storing new information. Impaired focus and concentration have serious implications for student learning and achievement. In addition, marijuana use among teens has also been linked to lack of motivation, which may be the cause for school absences and drop-out rates.

THC also affects parts of the brain that control motor skills such as reflexes and coordination, which are critical for athletic performance. Even cognitive and motor functions that are diminished for a short period of time can increase the risk of a serious injury, which has implications for youth sport concussions.

Academic and athletic performance are not the only areas affected by marijuana use. Many teens will learn to drive an automobile during their adolescent years, which makes safe driving a serious concern. The same capabilities that teens need to perform well in school and in sports, such as concentration, critical thinking, and motor skills are the same skills necessary for safe driving. THC impairs these functions and can increase the risk of a car accident.

Common misconceptions about marijuana and increased use among youth has created a public health concern. Schools have a responsibility to educate students about the facts and urge them to abstain while in school and delay the onset of use until adulthood.

Youth Problem Gambling Prevention Resources

Stressed Teenage Girl Gaming At Home

As gaming and gambling become more normalized in American society, it is important to keep in mind that a percentage of youth will experience problems. Prevention education efforts aimed at alcohol, tobacco, drug use and antisocial behaviors, should be extended to youth gambling. 

The youth gambling fact sheet from the International Center for Responsible Gaming, summarizes the research that shows that problem gambling co-occurs with other risky behaviors for children and adolescents, including smoking, alcohol use, and drug use. According to Change the Game - Unlock the Reality of Youth Gambling, a site of Ohio for Responsible Gambling, one youth out of 20 (ages 14-21) is at risk for problem gambling, and children introduced to gambling by age 12 are four times more likely to develop a gambling problem. This is especially a concern since many gaming apps, which simulate the same excitement and risky activation of the brain-reward circuit that is experienced by gamblers, are marketed to children as young as two years of age; at the same time, there is also growing casual exposure of youth to parents and adults betting on sports or buying lottery tickets with the expansion of gaming and gambling opportunities across the US.

Instructional Ideas – Resources for Preventing Youth Gambling Problems