For much of the past eight months, young people have been locked down at home or only able to leave the house to attend school. With the restrictions of the timetabled school day a thing of the past, some individuals have begun using food as a coping mechanism to deal with the frightening and uncertain times we find ourselves living in.
In contrast to drugs or alcohol, food is seen as a less risky way to soothe our stress. But the same processes for addiction occur in the brain when we eat particular “comfort foods”: our dopamine receptors respond to the consumption of sweet and calorie-dense foods, and this reward may lead to a pattern of unhealthy eating.
In my experience, a problem with binge-eating can be far less noticeable to parents and teachers than an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, and damaging habits can soon become deep-rooted and relied upon, impacting both physical and mental health.
Binge eating: What to do
I have found that “good kids” (those characterised as compliant, polite and easily controlled) are often the ones who develop this unhealthy relationship with food. Because they don’t do anything to attract negative attention, it’s easy to miss the behaviour and the habit can go undetected for years.
Food becomes the drug of choice for these “good kids”; it doesn’t have the adverse moral connotations of alcohol, classified drugs, smoking and vaping, for example.
In my setting, a boarding school, where students are living away from home, it is up to our staff to identify such problems. So, what can teachers do to help?
Notice the signs of eating disorders
It is not always easy to spot that an individual has begun to use binge-eating as a way to suppress or control their feelings. Weight gain may be seen, but ignored by teachers – or there may be no weight gain at all, if the young person remains physically active.
Often, this unhealthy behaviour occurs in secret and when students are alone, making it difficult to detect.
One way to keep an eye on what young people are eating is for staff to subtly monitor break-time tuck shops, and lunch plates or boxes, to gain some insight into what a young person is consuming throughout the school day. This is especially important in a boarding setting, where students remain on site.
It is also important for schools to have robust pastoral tracking systems in place, which allow us to be aware of every student, not just the exceptionally good or the obviously troubled or troubling.
Change the narrative
Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdown may have been a trigger for a young person to begin, or indeed continue, to use food to cope, especially if additional biological, psychological and social risk factors are present for that individual. When life feels unsure and overwhelming, young people will seek out what they find comfortable or have found comfortable in the past.
Instead of allowing unhealthy foods to provide the dopamine hit that students crave, schools can encourage ways for them to experience this reward more healthily. Young people can increase their dopamine levels by exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, listening to music, learning to meditate, and enjoying some sunshine.
Food can also play a positive role. There is some evidence that eating protein-rich foods, such as eggs, lentils, fish and chicken can encourage dopamine production. These alternatives may have a positive influence on mood, feelings of reward, and motivation for that individual.
If we, as teachers, suspect a student has an eating disorder of any kind, or is displaying worrying habits at school, early intervention is key. Staff should encourage the student to speak to their GP.
Build support into the curriculum
I am fortunate to work at a school where wellbeing is a part of the curriculum. At school, we use the term “fuel yourself” when we talk about topics such as nutrition, hydration, sleep and concentration.
There should also be opportunity to provide information about how to get support for eating disorders, including binge eating, and the health implications that come along with them.
Relating this to a wider topic of healthy coping strategies can be incredibly helpful, as part of a whole-school approach to wellbeing that will ensure pupils have the knowledge and tools they need to face both the current challenge of the coronavirus pandemic and whatever challenges they have to face in future.
Rachel Hart is deputy designated safeguarding lead, head of third year and teacher of PE and games at Caterham School in Surrey