Chris Parr

Tes focus on...Skipping lunch at school

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Teachers have so many demands on their time that they often just have a quick snack or give their midday meal a miss altogether. But could this be detrimental to their health – and even affect how well they do their job? Chris Parr reports

Teacher lunch breaks

On Monday, it might be a packet of crisps during your lunch break or perhaps a Snickers bar after school. On Tuesday, you might be lucky enough to find time for half a sandwich and a couple of bites from an apple. But, on Wednesday, you forget to eat altogether.

If this sounds familiar then, rest assured, you are not alone. Owing to packed schedules, “skip-lunch” culture has permeated many schools and the idea of sitting down to eat a nutritionally balanced meal in the middle of the school day is, for many teachers, a fantasy. According to a survey by Teacher Tapp, around 13 per cent of teachers don’t eat lunch at all.

Ensuring that students understand the importance of maintaining a healthy diet is something that schools take very seriously – it is part of the national curriculum – yet that doesn’t square with the fact that so many teachers find themselves modelling poor dietary habits on a daily basis.

There are knock-on effects to skipping lunch for teachers, too. But just how bad is it for you to miss meals or eat junk food in place of a proper lunch? What does it do to your physical and mental health? And could it have an impact on how well you teach?

“Food is there to be enjoyed and I think if people feel that their lifestyle is so busy that they cannot have a small amount of time to eat something that’s going to give them subsistence, then it is a concern,” says Susan Lanham-New, head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Surrey.

“There is good evidence to say that if you skip a meal, often caloric intake goes up because you think you can eat more later on or snack more on high-sugar, high-fat foods.” This, Lanham-New explains, can lead to obesity, which “goes hand in hand” with an increased risk of diabetes.

Deprived of nutrients

According to the NHS, skipping meals altogether can also result in tiredness and may mean you miss out on essential nutrients.

“Eating a really healthy breakfast, lunch and evening meal is a big part of healthy lifestyle – it is just as important as physical activity,” adds Lanham-New, who sits on the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition.

Gary Frost, chair in nutrition and dietetics in the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London, adds that while the research base on the impact of regularly skipping a proper lunch is still relatively small, we have good reason to believe that the effects on your ability to do your job well could be significant.

“What we do know is that children who skip meals do not perform cognitively as well as children who do not skip meals,” he explains. “For adults, there is a lack of data. However, given that mental performance declines with length of fasting, you would expect that a teacher who skips meals would not perform as well as those who eat regularly.”

As for what those changes in performance might look like, Frost points out that one “well described physiological response” sees our brain sending us messages “to seek and find food”, which can make it difficult for us to concentrate on any other tasks at hand.

Skipping food altogether can reduce the “availability of energy for the brain”, but eating something quickly on the go – perhaps snaffling a cereal bar or a packet of peanuts between classes – can also be problematic because of the types of foods this behaviour forces you to reach for.

“It’s far better to have fruits and vegetables rather than high-sugar, high-fat foods, but busy people will often go to vending machines that are full of crisps or chocolate bars,” says Lanham-New.

She believes it is important for teachers to be aware of the glycaemic index of their snack choices, which shows the extent to which different foodstuffs will increase blood-sugar levels.

“What you should be trying to do is to consume foods that are not going to suddenly increase your blood glucose level very high and then shoot it down again,” she explains. “So, for example, if somebody misses a meal and then they have a chocolate bar, there will be a huge increase in their blood glucose levels. That can result in them actually feeling very tired because [their blood sugar has] gone up and then back down again.”

As a result, there is a hierarchy of lunches, she says, with a balanced meal containing several portions of fruit at the top, more healthy snacks, such as nuts, in the middle, and high-sugar options at the bottom.

Ideally, though, teachers should try to “maintain greater consistency”, and make time for three regular meals a day, she adds – something that many in the profession would argue is easier said than done.

However, there is another reason to make time to sit down to eat a proper lunch that has nothing to do with blood sugar, Frost points out.

“There are two aspects of giving yourself time to eat,” he explains. “One is the ingestion of nutrients which your body needs to perform at its best, the other is giving yourself some time away from your job, which may also be of benefit.”

Although finding time to unwind during the day is important in any profession, it makes sense that it might be particularly critical in a job like teaching, where you are expected to be “on” at all times while in the classroom.

Not taking a proper break could have implications for teachers’ mental, as well as their physical, health. Research suggests that, where this is not happening in schools, it isn’t the fault of the teachers but of senior leaders who are (sometimes unknowingly) perpetuating a culture of high accountability, in which staff do not feel supported or encouraged to sit down and take a breather.

In a recent report, The Mental Health and Wellbeing of Teachers in England, researchers Jon Jerrim and Sam Sims set out to compile the “most detailed and comprehensive investigation of teacher mental health and wellbeing” to date. They used the latest figures available from huge datasets – including the Labour Force Survey, the Annual Population Survey, the Understanding Society study, UK Biobank data, and the Teaching and Learning International Survey – to explore the experiences of tens of thousands of teachers.

What they found was that while teachers’ mental health and wellbeing was broadly comparable with the mental health and wellbeing of those in other professions, where there were problems, these could often be attributed to an unhealthy school culture – the type of culture where, say, staff feel they do not have time to sit down and catch up with colleagues over a balanced meal.

“On average, teaching isn’t a terrible thing to do but, in a significant minority of schools, teachers are having a pretty tough time because the schools aren’t doing a good job of looking after them,” says Sims.

“And despite the fact that our data shows that teaching isn’t much worse than it used to be or than other professions, on average, there are quite a lot of schools where the marking policy is dreadful or the support for behaviour management is dreadful. It is within the remit of school leaders to change that,” he adds.

This is something that leaders need to pay attention to, particularly right now. The coronavirus pandemic has made it clear just how important it is for us to look after our mental and physical health – and making sure that you stop to eat a healthy lunch is an important part of that.

This will undoubtedly remain challenging for teachers – particularly where they do not feel encouraged by leaders – but trying to find even a few minutes each day to eat a balanced lunch really should be a priority, Lanham-New concludes.

“Lunch is such a good way of getting in your fruits or vegetables – try to take a salad into school and find five minutes in your day to eat,” she says. “But if you don’t, then try to resist snacking on high-sugar, high-fat foods, which many of us will do.

“Teaching is a physically active job, which is great. But if people skip meals then, often, it will have a resultant effect of making them feel really tired.” And in a busy school, she says “that just does not help”.

Chris Parr is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 4 June 2021 issue under the headline “Tes focus on...Skipping lunch”

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