An nutrition expert says the drive to shed pounds risks lives. Amanda Kelly reports
SCHOOLS that are over-zealous in promoting healthy eating habits in the canteen put children's lives at risk, an expert in eating disorders told the Association of Maintained Girls' Schools annual conference this week.
Encouraging youngsters to ditch chips and junk food in fav-our of a low-fat diet of fruit and salad is helping to create a generation of anorexic children, said Dr Dee Dawson, medical director of Rhodes Farm Clinic, north London, which treats young anorexics.
With the incidence of the illness doubling every decade and now affecting 1 per cent of all schoolgirls, Dr Dawson said children should not be dissuaded from eating chocolate and chips.
Calling for body image to be tackled as part of the school curriculum, she said: "The healthy eating strategy in schools is appalling and I think all the posters promoting it in canteens should be ripped down.
"People are being led to believe that they should not eat any fat at all, whereas the fact is that children need a high-fat diet when they are growing.
"Of course, they need a balanced healthy diet but we shouldn't make them feel guilty if they have a Mars Bar or a plate of chips.
"Anorexia is often triggered in the classroom when pupils begin learning about the nutritional value and fat contents of foods, as well as when they are forced to be weighed in exercises to demonstrate standard distribution in biology.
"If the Government is concerned about tackling obesity among children, it should concentrate on putting on ore after-school physical activities.
"Only 4 per cent of youngsters are seriously overweight and this is almost entirely down to the fact that they are driven to school and then spend their evening slumped in front of the television or computer. It's not because they are eating too much."
Dr Dawson told the association meeting in Stratford that parents should be informed as soon as teachers suspect a pupil may be developing anorexia.
If it could be shown that they had lost weight, they should be prevented from coming to school at all.
"The most important first move is to weigh the child. No child should ever lose weight and every girl should actually increase her weight each month until she is 16," she added.
"As soon as a child is seen to be losing weight - however little - parents should be forced to keep them at home.
"It is possible for them to drop dead even if they look perfectly normal because, if they are not eating properly, the heart rate and blood pressure plummets.
"It is also impossible for them to concentrate on their studies if they are eating just fruit and salad, whereas if you give them a chocolate bar they will stay awake until the end of the day," she said.
Dr Dawson said parents often refused to admit that their daughters might have an eating disorder and were extremely reluctant to withdraw them from school as a result.
She also blamed the media and fashion industry for portraying unrealistic images of women, pointing out that achieving the measurements of the average shop-window mannequin was a physical impossibility.