'We need a more holistic approach to combat society's unhealthy and confusing approach to food and body image'

We have a confusing and damaging food-and-body image culture, which will only be exacerbated by picture-based health warnings. Schools and society must adopt a more holistic approach, writes the former government mental health champion

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A couple of years ago, the child of a friend of mine, who was five years old and in her first year of primary school at the time, began sobbing wildly when she saw her mum extract and unwrap a cereal bar from the cupboard.

“Mummy, don’t eat that! Your leg will drop off!” she said, between bouts of hysterical wailing.

Trying to penetrate this logic, my friend sat her down and asked her where she had heard such a thing. Further investigation revealed that their local authority had deemed it necessary to send one of their employees into her school to deliver a lesson on nutrition and had succeeded in making my friend’s daughter fearful around anything which might contain hidden sugar.

In fairness to the council worker in question, what she had actually said was something along the lines of: "Excess refined sugar can cause type two diabetes, which in a worst case scenario can result in you losing your legs. Refined sugar turns up in places you wouldn’t expect, such as in cereal bars”. All of which is, of course, true.

Yet what the council worker neglected to understand is that young children don’t enjoy the luxury of fully comprehending nuance.

In fact, it’s not until we are around eight or nine years old that we even begin to develop what psychologists called "critical faculty" – the ability to start to decipher shades of grey between black and white. Critical faculties continue to develop throughout adolescence and, like any way of thinking, the more it is nurtured, the stronger it becomes.

Owing to her lack of critical faculty and general childlike outlook, the lesson my friend’s daughter had taken away from her nutrition lesson was "cereal bars make your legs fall off". This is a terrifying notion, almost guaranteed to cause distress and, in a worst-case scenario, produce a problematic future relationship with food and body image.

It’s for this reason that I cannot support a proposal put forward by the British Medical Association (BMA) last week, stating that junk foods should sport pictorial health warnings similar to those seen on cigarette packets.

From what I have been able to glean during last week’s media coverage, the justification for this appears to be that the pictures of blackened lungs, yellowing teeth and grotesque throat tumours currently adorning cigarette packets throughout the land have contributed to a huge reduction in the number of young people taking up smoking. The response to our obesity and diabetes crises in under 21s should therefore be, the BMA argues, the same.

The problem, which the BMA has apparently failed to identify, is that smoking and eating are very different pastimes. One can survive without ever smoking a single cigarette whereas, conversely, one generally finds that if one fails to eat, the results are far more serious.

Furthermore, the advertising of cigarettes to children was, quite rightly, abolished during the 1970s. Before this, popular cartoon characters were seen lighting up and riffing on the smooth taste of particular cigarette brands.

In 1999, smoking ads were banned from billboards, followed by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2010, which prohibited tobacco companies from sponsoring sports, music and other cultural events.

The magnificent Netflix documentary Fed Up, which examines the relationship between children in the United States and refined sugar (much of which is directly applicable to the UK) points out that the current colourful, kid-friendly advertising of junk food will one day be looked upon with the same horror and disdain as the notion of cartoon characters peddling cigarettes.

Until such time, however, the purveyors of sugary cereals and snacks – not to mention fast food outlets – use a significant proportion of their multi-million-pound advertising budgets to buy the brand loyalty of impressionable youngsters.

These children will then grow up in an environment that gives them powerful contradictory messages – on the one hand fetishising food, on the other pushing ideas of physical perfection that revolve around extreme thinness.

It’s a culture in which some form of bulimic behaviour, whether it is overeating and then compensating with "purging" behaviours or simply feeling a huge amount of guilt after eating, is almost inevitable.

The effect is magnified when we ignore the unconscious impact of our society and instead focus on a narrative of "personal responsibility". (I have written previously about how those who call for education on the importance of nutrition and exercise are ignoring the futility of this in a situation where the average state school child does one hour of PE per week and is greeted by a wall of fried chicken outlets the minute they step outside of the school gates). 

To put pictures of morbidly overweight people suffering from a range of visually discernible, obesity-related health problems on sugary foods would, therefore, only compound the worst aspects of our already confusing and damaging food-and-body image culture.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that refined sugar and consequent obesity isn’t a problem. Yet the range of solutions mooted by the powers that be seem always to revolve around inducing feelings of shame and guilt in children, rather than genuinely addressing the root causes.

If we want children to lead physically healthy lifestyles, we should design an education system and a society that allows them to do it holistically. Without such a system, the confusion caused could spell disaster for children's mental wellbeing.

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.

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