Teaching adults how to eat healthier is made even harder when bad eating habits are learned at home and especially at school. Eating habits develop when we are young, so if the average Fijian child spends at least ten years in the primary and secondary school system, that's ten years of developing a taste for the wrong foods.
Fiji's health issue of non-communicable diseases is caused in part by too much salt, sugar and artificial flavourings found in snacks like bhooja, salted peas, instant noodles, sugary juice drinks and food from a packet.
In my kitchen, a number of the younger Fijian chefs arrive with very bad eating habits. With access to fresh foods I allow them to eat in the kitchen, their instinct is to consume the same things they were taught as a child. No fruits, no crunchy vegetables and less water.
These are the basic and most essential super foods that any growing human should be eating every day. Think about what our children are now eating in most school canteens across Fiji.
Oily foods deep-fried in bad vegetable or canola oils and bean peanut snacks laced with refined salt - both of these foods directly contribute to heart disease.
When it comes to diabetes, I'm horrified that Fijians call carbonated drinks and sugary fruit drinks, juice. These drinks are far from the nutritious real juice of freshly squeezed fruits, and are nothing but water, sugar and artificial flavours.
These drinks allow our children to develop a sweet tooth in their early years, and instead of preferring fresh water, they continue to drink these into adulthood. Too much sugar at an early age contributes to an imbalance in blood sugar levels, increasing the chances of developing type two diabetes when they get older.
I was saddened the other day to see a young family all drinking these sugar drinks, even a infant baby, who will no doubt develop a preference for these drinks instead of fresh water. It doesn't help that Fiji's bottled artesian spring waters cost more than the processed drinks.
One of the biggest excuses I hear from parents and school canteen operators is that the kids don't want fresh healthy foods, and prefer the junk foods. This may be the case but it is the responsibility of the adults to teach better eating habits. Just as it is a parent and school's responsibility to teach good manners and respect, it is even more important to enforce and teach good eating habits so they will have this knowledge when they get older. By allowing the kids to eat what they want we are only reinforcing the message that these foods are good for our health.
Changing their habits is almost impossible later in life, and it will only be when they develop an NCD like diabetes, cancer or heart disease will they be forced to change. By that stage there has been too much damage to the body, and like an increasing number of Fijians today, will just have to cope with an illness that could have been prevented if they learned to eat better.
Processed and non-fresh foods should not replace the most important meal times for our school children - breakfast and lunch. Feeding children the right way during school is essential not only to health but for their developing brains. Kids need the maximum amount of energy and alert brains to study and learn hard. Super foods are natural foods that are higher in nutrients and contain more of the essential compounds a body needs to stay healthy.
These whole natural foods should not be grown artificially or enhanced in any way to maximise their long term health benefits. Most of the ancient civilizations, including the traditional Fijian diet include super foods. These foods helped to boost the immune system and keep the young body healthy and full of energy.
Foods like fresh salads, bananas, fruits, fresh yoghurt, wholemeal bread and most whole fruits will provide essential vitamins, minerals and energy to keep children alert at school. Instead of packing curry roti for lunch, fill it with fresh chicken and salad. Make sure your children learn to eat one piece of fruit a day. A wholemeal sandwich packed full of fresh food is more nutritious than oily food.
In the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has been at the forefront of driving this same message in schools and homes where bad eating habits begin.
His Food Revolution programme has been implemented to teach children about where fresh foods come from and the health benefits of reducing the junk food and increasing the good foods.
In my upcoming Fiji TV series, I visit one of Suva's most recognised schools to teach the local canteen some new and different ways to offer healthier foods. Not all the children will like the idea of eating fresher foods, but with some creativity and lots of flavour, school lunches can be just as cheap as the junk. Whether they like it nor not, it is up to the adults to instill this knowledge to help them into the future.
Lance Seeto is an author, chef and media personality based at Castaway Island, Fiji. His highly anticipated TV series on healthy eating begins on Fiji One TV in October.