As Lake Nona High School eleventh grader Juliana Guerrero studied the nutrition facts on the labels of some of her favorite snacks, she was shocked to learn what she thought was healthy was not so healthy after all.
“It was very surprising for me,” she said, “because the snacks that I thought would be healthier, the nutritional labels didn’t match up with what I thought I knew, for example, with the amount of added sugars and sodium. And so going forward, I’m going to pay a lot more attention to labels.”
Guerrero was among a group of eleventh graders who are learning health literacy from a team of UCF College of Medicine students. The program is part of an independent research project led by fourth-year medical student Arjun Patel and teaches the high school students health literacy and wellness. In a recent session, students learned how to analyze nutritional labels for added sugars, sodium content, and serving sizes.
“Having the med students here has been fun,” said Guerrero, who wants to become a cardiologist. “It’s not like they’re just giving you a lecture. I’ve learned a whole lot from them, and it’s been enjoyable. They make us do all these activities, and being able to interact with them allows me to pick their brains about med school.”
Patel said the main goal of the program was to not only teach the students health literacy but all life skills they needed to promote and maintain good health.
“When I got to medical school, I recognized there was a need to learn these types of health skills at an early age,” Patel said. “No one had taught me to read nutrition labels or about health insurance. The fact is several diseases are preventable if we take action at an early age. So my intention is to make sure these students get what they need, so they can take ownership of their health early on.”
Patel partnered with Dr. Lloyd Werk, a pediatrician at Nemours Children’s Hospital, and third-year medical student Zachary Helm to design a six-module curriculum that teaches high school students to be self-advocates for their health, get the most out of doctor visits, choose health insurance, and make smart food choices. As part of the research component, Patel collected pretest data to measure the students’ level of health literacy and plans to collect post-test data when the program ends.
“I knew absolutely nothing about health insurance,” said eleventh grader Liliana Riviera, “because I usually leave that up to my mom. Now, I have a better idea of what to look for, and that’s good because I will have to make these decisions on my own one day.”
Shari Bowers, a health sciences teacher at Lake Nona High School, said having the medical students teach the class was a refreshing experience for her students and marked a great community partnership.
“When the medical students approached me, I thought it was an excellent idea,” she said. “The kids are very engaged, they get a break from hearing me, and they are closer in age to the medical students, so they can relate to them better and can talk about new technologies and innovations that I hadn’t learned about.”
Patel hopes the program will help underscore the importance of preventative medicine as the most important form of healthcare.
“Healthcare should not only be ‘sick care,’” he said. “Most people tend to wait until they aren’t feeling well to start thinking about their health. As future physicians, our job is to make sure people stay healthy and don’t get sick in the first place.”