Skip to main content

'Schools can't take sole responsibility for their pupils' relationships with food'

Education alone cannot tackle eating disorders – it's the whole of society who must shoulder that burden, writes the former government mental health champion

News article image

Education alone cannot tackle eating disorders – it's the whole of society who must shoulder that burden, writes the former government mental health champion

In the UK, diagnosable eating disorders are said to affect 1.6 million of us.

That’s before we even consider those with "disordered eating" patterns, compulsive exercise issues or what the media terms "orthorexia" – an inflexible and unhealthy devotion to "clean" eating. Whilst binge eating disorder has technically been incorporated into the medical spectrum, it is rarely diagnosed as such, meaning that eating disorder stats don’t reflect those who are overweight owing to emotional or mental health problems. The NHS predicts half of us will be clinically obese by 2030.

Professor Green faced wrath from some campaigners last year when he called bulimia an "intelligent" illness. Yet, for my own part, whilst I felt it was clumsily worded, I understood exactly what he meant. On the one hand, food is fetishised by endless advertising, snack racks and cookery shows. On the other, we are told unequivocally that the inevitable result of our partially enforced gluttony – ie, excess weight – is socially unacceptable. Whilst bulimia might not be "intelligent", it is in some ways a logical response to our environment and its powerful, largely unconscious messaging.

At the heart of all this is the way food has been industrialised for mass production and our bodies have been claimed as a commodity by consumerist capitalism. Incidentally, the Labour Party acknowledges this to some extent in its latest manifesto, last week pledging to ban fast-food advertising before 9pm in an attempt to halt the indoctrination of children.

That aside, when most people are asked what the solution is to the burgeoning toxicity manifesting in our relationships with our physical selves, they reply with one word: education.

I’ve heard this argument countless times on various panels, radio phone-ins and daytime chat shows. It’s usually a covert insinuation that the working classes are simply bereft of the necessary information and if they were "educated" about nutrition and exercise, our obesity problem (which, it is implied, belongs predominantly to the poor) would magically disappear.

In an attempt to counter this, some viewers or pundits will angrily ask whether anyone knows the difference in price between a punnet of fresh fruit and a deep fried crispy pancake, or has tried to feed a family of four on a budget of £20 per week.

Whilst I think the latter viewpoint is important – so-called "healthy" and super foods are undoubtedly more expensive – it only scratches the surface of the problem.

Some 80 per cent of the foods you will see on your average supermarket shelf have been injected with excess refined sugar, including the fruit and veg, because sugar is a preservative which will increase their lifespan. Refined sugar, known to be the number one case of obesity in children, pops up where we least expect it – in pasta sauces, yoghurts, cereals, in milk designed specifically for infants. It takes a singularly hawk-eyed and vigilant parent, one who ideally has access to a farmers’ market or time to grow their own crops, to protect their offspring from this. Not to mention one with sufficient disposable income.

Whenever government action to tackle this gains momentum, multi-billion pound corporations bandy together to bully it into submission. Alternative, hugely watered down solutions are then mooted in the corridors of power, which usually include nutrition lessons in primary schools, measuring children and sending letters home to parents if they are deemed overweight.

'Knowledge can't save the situation'

Again, the implication is that mere knowledge can save the situation.

My own experience, incidentally, doesn’t bear this out in the slightest. My mother has a qualification in nutrition and taught me about it from an early age. I also had a couple of lessons on it at school. By the time I reached adolescence, I was well versed in the various food groups and their functions and, whilst this information was undoubtedly useful, it didn’t prevent me from spending my late teens and early twenties suffocating under the weight of various eating disorders. My difficulties with food, exercise and body image came from a place far more psychologically complex than a lack of education.

Since recovering 10 years ago, I have what I’d consider broadly "normal" dietary and body image habits, in that I try to eat as healthily as I can for 80 per cent of the time, am slightly overweight like the majority of British people and, ironically, devote quite a lot of my energy to not overthinking either of those things.

Yet the periods when I’ve found that the process of caring for my body is easiest, when I’ve naturally reached for healthy food and fitness choices as a direct response to the innate relationship between my mind and my body, have been when I have been happiest.

Set against a backdrop of the average state school child having only one or two PE lessons a week (owing to the steady diminishing of funds and time within the curriculum), community sports centres being closed and a refusal of government to listen to experts like Jamie Oliver on the sugar problem, education can only do so much.

Ultimately, achieving a cohort of physically healthy citizens is yet another example of something which has covertly become the responsibility of schools when, in reality, it is the whole of society which must shoulder its burden. 

Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @_NatashaDevon

For more columns by Natasha, visit her back-catalogue

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow Tes on Twitter and like Tes on Facebook

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you