Positive peer pressure

The rise in child obesity has led to scary statements such as today’s kids being at risk of not living as long as their parents. Two terrific teens have resolved to do their bit to change this.
Positive peer pressure

Wellness is big right now. There is a growing part of society looking to lose weight, gain energy or just feel better. Ingredients like kale, quinoa and chia seeds are becoming readily available in supermarkets; franchise restaurants are launching healthy menus for people following paleo, raw or vegan diets; and you can’t turn around without bumping into a green juice in a mason jar. The number of 24-hour gyms is on the rise, as are sports like CrossFit. And yet at the same time concern is growing about our ‘obesity epidemic’, with around one in three Kiwis now classed as obese. A report by Morgan Stanley in March showed New Zealand is the ‘third fattest country’ in the developed world, with obesity rates soaring among young people.

While some high schools are changing the fare available at their tuck shops, there are still a lot of teens wandering around with soft drinks, donuts and chips that can’t be healthy for their young bodies. Some teens, however, are bucking the trend and looking for healthier ways to live.

We met two who have found a passion for wellness and are using their skills to start a movement. We can only hope with the power of the giant social media machine that runs their lives, that their wise words will catch on.

The anti-sugar crusader

Greytown teen Paighe Crossan’s daily diet is different to that of almost all her peers. For a start it’s pretty much sugar-free, and normal teen fare such as muesli bars, chips, juice and other processed food don’t make an appearance.

“Most people have come to accept it but some of my friends still like to tease me a bit and try and convince me to have some of their chocolate biscuits or whatever. It’s a bit of a joke.”

But what very few of those peers know is 13-year-old Paighe has a Facebook page promoting healthier food for kids with more than 10,000 fans. The page has no evidence of who she is because her parents were concerned about cyber safety and she wanted it to be about her message.

“I didn’t want to be a huge show-off. I’m a bit shy so being a Facebook personality wasn’t really my thing, I just wanted to see if I could try to change some kids’ attitudes towards healthy eating by making it fun.”

Social change

The Facebook page Healthy Food for Healthy Kids came from a huge change in diet for the whole Crossan family (Paighe, her sister, mother and father). It all began when, three years ago, they found themselves surrounded by serious illness.

“We all of a sudden knew lots of people close to us who were really sick with cancer and other problems,” says Paighe. “Mum decided to change our diet almost overnight because she realised we needed to take care of ourselves and good food was one of the easiest ways to do that.”

The Crossan family used to eat a fairly standard Kiwi diet: roasts, lasagne, pasta, sausages, beef stroganoff, chops, steak with sides of potato, salads and lots of sauces and so on. But now they all have a vege juice every day, Paighe has become vegetarian and her mum, Jannah, has gone vegan. While dad Braden still eats a little meat, vegetables are a major part of their diet.

“At first I hated the idea and couldn’t believe Mum had changed our diet so much. I really felt like I was missing out. It took me a long time to get used to the lack of sugar and not eating all the things we’d always eaten. It was huge change,” Paighe says.

Paighe found when she did eat sugar and junk food she didn’t feel fantastic. “That’s when it became much easier.” she says. “The whole family had more energy and felt so much better. I realised sugar was taking away that healthy feeling when I ate it, so I started to miss it less because of how gross it made me feel.”

After experiencing these personal revelations Paighe wanted to share them with others her age.

“I decided to start a Facebook page for friends and family to share recipes, information and ideas. I had no idea it’d end up getting so popular. For about the first year I only had 100 followers. Actually, when we moved from Wanganui to Greytown in early 2014, I kind of forgot about it a bit.”

Once established in her new town she started posting again. Soon the page had 2000 likes and Paighe became more motivated.

“I got in contact with Sarah Wilson from I Quit Sugar and Damon Gameau from That Sugar Film and they shared my page with their followers. I couldn’t quite believe it in May when it hit 10,000.”

Paighe and her mum are thrilled with the page’s success. Paighe regularly gets private messages from other teens telling her what they had for their healthy dinner, and asking her for help with changing their diet. “It’s horrible what I see on the bus, people my age with those big bottles of brightly coloured fizzy drinks and bags of lollies. I believe it’s slowly killing them and it makes me really sad. And that’s just the obvious sugars. There’s so much hidden in cereals, juices and muesli bars too.”

Pride and prejudice

That’s not to say it’s easy. “Peer pressure is tough and also people thinking we’re weird to eat the way we do. It’s really hard at birthday parties. When I’ve given in and splurged on junk, I always regret it because I feel so sick. It’s hard sometimes to live healthily when cafés don’t always have options for me and ice cream and chocolate advertising is everywhere.”

Jannah is very proud of her daughter. “I know it can’t be easy for her when she eats differently to so many kids her age. Yet she hasn’t often succumbed to peer pressure. We still have treats – fizzy drink and juice are the only things we never touch – but only once in a while, rather than all the time. I’ve heard it said Paighe’s generation could be the first not to outlive their parents. I’m very proud of her for trying to do her bit to stop that from happening.”

The cookbook author

Joshua Marshall remembers having his own vege patch from the tender age of four.

“Mum works in herbal medicine and has always been interested in health and growing produce. I guess that rubbed off on me as I’ve loved growing fruit and vegetables for as long as I can remember. I have always been fascinated by the concept of self-sustaining too, eating what you grow yourself. My biggest pride is still a 9kg cauli. That fed us for a while!”

The Blenheim 14-year-old attends Marlborough Boys’ College, and while his friends have been on Xbox and PlayStation after school, he’s been writing a book on gardening and cooking with his mum, Julia; a project that’s taken the best part of two years.

“It’s been great. We were so excited when we finally saw the finished product. It took a long time as we had to do everything season by season as things were growing, and test all the recipes at those actual times of the year. I made all the meals for the photographs myself to make sure kids would be able to do it. It was definitely challenging but totally worth it.”

Path to publishing

The path that led to this book, Young Gardeners, Growing Chefs, all started in 2009 when Joshua’s elderly neighbour ‘Aunty Margi’ entered him in the Marlborough Gardener of the Year award because he used to take all his excess veges and distribute them to the elderly residents in his street.

“We didn’t even know he’d been entered,” says Julia. “I guess the neighbours were just so grateful for what he does. He’s always been amazing like that, a very kind boy by nature, despite some of the personal challenges he’s had to deal with.”

Not only did he win the Marlborough competition, he was runner-up in the national one. The award gave Joshua the push to spread his love for gardening and healthy food to a wider audience. He went and helped his own school and then others, teaching them how to set up gardens and maintain them. His goal was to reduce local obesity but then he and his mum came up with the idea of spreading the word even further.

“What I was seeing at school was really concerning. Way too many takeaways, pies and junk food. I wanted to see a healthier New Zealand and Mum and I thought writing a book could be a great way to do it,” says Joshua. The pair decided self-publishing would be the fastest route. When it got to the point of getting others to write their thoughts for the introduction, they approached well-known gardening experts and many were happy to oblige. One of Julia’s friend’s, Janet Dunn, did all the photography for love as well.

“Mum and I decided any profits would go back into a trust for other projects like school gardens, cooking classes for adults and holiday programmes.” says Joshua. “Anything that could help to reduce obesity in our community.”

A determined boy

The result was a very professional-looking book on how to grow and cook your own vegetables, with Josh’s beaming face on the cover.

“We were so excited when our first copy arrived” he says. “Although I couldn’t help but scan it for mistakes! It was really hard work putting all that information plus over 100 recipes together but I loved it and want to write another one soon.

“I know what I do is different to most people my age and when the book first came out, I was teased by some older boys at school. My friends are really proud of me and even though I may eat slightly different things to them, it makes no difference to our friendships.

“The main thing is getting the message out to help my generation be healthier than they are right now. If they can eat healthily 80% of the time, like I do, their future will be so much better.”

Words by: Alexia Santamaria

Photos: Tim Cuff and Nicola Edmunds

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