Scots can grow tired of jokes about the country’s poor diet and the idea that deep-fried pizzas and Mars Bars are staple foods. But when you hear arguably Scotland’s most famous active sportswoman recalling the meals of her schooldays, you are reminded that there is more than a little truth to the stereotype.
“When I was at school, some of the options were terrible,” says Eve Muirhead, the world champion curler and Olympic bronze medallist. “I remember having a cheeseburger at my first break, then going out to the Mr Frosty van and getting a 50-pence mix-up and sometimes a Pot Noodle for my lunch or, occasionally, two chocolate doughnuts and a packet of Hula Hoops – things that were available when they shouldn’t have ever been available.”
In an exclusive interview with Tes Scotland after returning from the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Muirhead shares her views on making school meals more popular, why PE should be treated like maths, the critical role of home economics teachers, and how to get more girl pupils interested in sport.
Despite having dietary habits in her schooldays that would send a sports nutritionist into a panic, Muirhead, 27, now speaks about food with the zeal of the convert: good nutrition has been a “massive” part of her success.
She has a hardline stance on healthy school meals and sugary energy drinks. When Tes Scotland mentions a visit to Finland, where school pupils are not allowed off school premises – free school meals are available to all pupils in Finland – Muirhead approves.
‘Your body is a bit like a car’
“I think that would definitely help because, of course, when you’re a young kid, you’re not worried about what you’re putting in your body, as long as it tastes good,” she says. “If you’ve got the option to go down the street and buy cans of fizzy drink, and chippies, you’re going to do it.”
Muirhead supports the banning of high-caffeine, sugar-loaded energy drinks from schools, as “they’re full of rubbish and terrible for you”, and “just a cheap way to buzz you up”. She adds: “If we’re really serious about wanting to change the lifestyle of kids, then these are the drastic actions that need to be taken.”
To young athletes in school, she says good nutrition – a careful balance of protein, carbohydrates and “good fats” – is essential for doing well, even if your ambitions do not go beyond the school football or rugby team.
“Your body is a bit like a car: you have to fuel it to get it to work,” she says. But Muirhead stresses that she applies an “80-20” rule that leaves room for regular treats – for her, often a Thai green curry. She adds: “Enjoy yourself, have a bag of crisps, don’t punish yourself for no reason.”
For good concentration in high-pressure situations, such as the school exams that begin at the end of the month, she advises that water is more important than anything else – “hydration is really important to keep you alert and keep you going” – but breakfast is also crucial.
“I think, during exams, [many] kids probably skip breakfast but might grab a bag of crisps on the way to the bus or something,” she says. “But having a hearty breakfast fuels you through the day – you’re going to be more alert, more concentrated, more brain-ready.” Muirhead implores teachers to show pupils that healthy eating is not boring – her favourite healthy meal is salmon risotto, sweet potato wedges and vegetables – and she lauds home economics teachers.
She has vivid memories of doing lots of cooking for home economics in the first few years of secondary school, and is disappointed to hear that it is a subject that, more than any other, has been struggling to recruit teachers, especially given that good nutrition is now considered essential to sporting excellence.
“PE and home economics should link very, very closely together – that would definitely benefit kids if there were more teachers there able to do that,” she says.
Another surprising fact that Muirhead shares about her time at school: sometimes, she would skip PE.
“You could get out if it pretty easily,” she recalls. “I remember a couple of times I would make the excuse that I’d forgotten my kit because maybe it wasn’t cool and some of my friends weren’t doing it.”
While Muirhead acknowledges that times may have changed, she recalls that her school was “lenient” on pupils who ducked out of PE, and questions whether teachers’ attitudes would have been the same if students had been trying to get out of maths.
She supports a more hardline stance on participation in PE, but also sees an argument for gender-specific approaches if they get numbers up. “Why not do girls’ PE and boys’ PE?” she asks. “It’s not how you take part, it’s taking part that counts.” Even now, girls’ physical activity levels are worryingly low. Muirhead says: “Sport to young girls isn’t cool – getting sweaty, your make-up coming off, wearing shorts.”
To help overcome such a perception, she suggests that schools highlight female sporting role models and take girls to competitive events to show the “fun side” of sport, then give them a chance to try that activity back at school. But gentle, incremental encouragement is key, she believes: “The last thing you want to do is push people into sport.”
Muirhead also raises a little-discussed reason for missing PE: periods. She says teachers should explain that, even at elite level, “every female athlete goes through that” – but that it is still possible to perform well enough to get on to the medal podium.
However, while Muirhead believes there is a place for separate boys’ and girls’ PE, she still thinks there should be opportunities for girls to take on boys. “I used to be so competitive that I wanted to beat all the boys,” she says.
Eve Muirhead and her curling team are ambassadors for the Get Set to Eat Fresh programme from Aldi and Team GB, including a competition for pupils aged 5-14 to design a bag for life: getseteatfresh.co.uk/designabag