Psychologist Tara Porter wrote in TES this week that the whole approach to “healthy eating” education in schools is way off the mark.
A black-and-white stance (lettuce great, chocolate bad) had led to some children obsessing about weight and others simply ignoring over-the-top messages about the dangers of junk, she warned.
Was is possible, she suggested, that the drive for health was actually contributing to anorexia and obesity?
Being a parent in the midst of all this, I found that her article struck a chord. My experiences with my own children have taught me how complex this issue is, and how school, business, society and family all tussle with each other in the fight for children’s brains and stomachs. It will never be enough just to tell kids to eat celery.
For example, there was a period during my son’s Reception year when my previously sugar-loving child started turning down sweets, cakes and crisps. He spoke of fizzy drinks as if they were akin to crystal meth.
For several months, he lectured me on the obesity risk of cupcakes and the havoc that a Starburst could wreak on one’s teeth.
The wheel of good health was very important, he commented, as he looked down at a beige dinner of fishfingers, chips and sweetcorn. Fat, he said, was a BAD THING. It was the worst thing you could be.
Despite being a bit of a health freak myself, this alarmed me: his school appeared to be turning out legions of miniature body and diet fascists. Roll over Gwyneth Paltrow and her manuka honey macrobiotic risotto, here comes a freaky five-year-old with a penchant for kale and quinoa.
But it wasn’t to last. No sooner had the healthy-eating lessons finished than the messages were flushed down his mental drain to make way for some more phonics. He was back to his usual self, begging me for chocolate eclairs and chips.
I now tread a fine line between feeding him normal “healthy” food and yielding to his junk food whims just often enough for him not to feel left out.
The 'sweet treat' culture
But it is tough. Despite all the healthy-eating messages the school puts out, and the big effort it has made to end a “sweet treat” culture on the premises, some children still walk to school munching on something from the nearby shop.
Visits to the park are often crazed chocolate-munching sessions. I have to explain to my son why he can’t live off a diet of unhealthy snacks that some of his friends appear to enjoy.
I have to explain, as we walk through heaps of unfathomably cheap sweet foods piled high in the entrances to supermarkets, that these products are treats; not, in fact, the staple food of the nation (well, perhaps they are).
Recent reports that chocolate manufacturers could be reducing their portion sizes by 20 per cent made me snort with derision. People will just buy a couple of extra bars. I know I would.
Small gestures like this may get the companies off the hook with the government, but they are not going to shrink the nation’s overweight kids by 20 per cent.
Strict rules on how and where food is displayed in shops could help, and would certainly help families make better choices.
Schools should be at the centre of efforts, too – but wasting time in the curriculum with explicit “healthy eating” lessons is not the answer: they only seem to reinforce the sort of guilt and fear around eating we are trying to steer kids away from.
We all know that children almost inevitably end up doing as you do, not as you say.
That is why schools can make a difference by compelling every child to enjoy a proper, hearty school lunch, eaten together, with their teachers, at tables.
The Universal Infant Free School Meals policy goes some way towards this, but lunches are still underfunded and undervalued. Despite Jamie Oliver’s best efforts, they remain unpopular with the paying customer.
So, forget reducing the size of a Mars bar by a single bite. Deprivation is never the best way to lose weight.
The only way we are going to end up with a nation of slim and healthy children is by feeding them well.
You can read Tara Porter's article, "The flaws in how schools talk about food", here
Irena Barker is a writer and mother of three children, two of whom are at primary school