Schools' 'healthy' eating message confusing kids

Could genetics play a part in eating disorders?
Could genetics play a part in eating disorders? 

We've all heard about the obesity epidemic Australia is facing. But is the fight against fat actually negatively affecting our children's ideas about healthy eating?

What we might not have paid attention to is how this media portrayal of "fat is bad" is affecting our children's ideas about eating.

Schools have been quick to jump on board the healthy bandwagon, promoting water and fruit as the best options, but are they really helping our children learn better habits?

Over the last two years, I've watched the school my children go to change in response to the growing problem of overweight children in our midst. Originally a school which had a healthy attitude towards food, with fruit trees and above ground gardens providing produce for cooking classes, they've turned into something else. A school of food police.

What started as a movement to encourage healthy eating, exercise and discussion of which foods were sensible choices, has somehow morphed into a culture of food shaming, guilt, and my daughter refusing to eat her school lunches.

I'm not even sure I can blame the food curriculum at this stage. Peer pressure is a powerful thing.

I asked my daughter, aged seven, why she wasn't eating her lunch. The answer was simple. "I just don't want to eat too much." The unspoken words hung in the air: too much food makes you fat.

To a young girl, there's nothing in the world worse than fat. Of all the insults, fat stings the worst. They fight to avoid it at any cost, and at any cost seems to involve skipping meals and avoiding anything not counted amongst the peer approved choices..

The "Move Well, Eat Well" project our school is signed up with bases its food recommendations on The Australian Dietary Guidelines, which promotes a high grain, low fat diet, even for children. Suggesting children drink low fat milk isn't controversial anymore, but it could be, with initial studies reporting full fat dairy may actually help combat cardiovascular disease and obesity.

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But the guidelines aren't changing, citing the need for further studies over a longer period of time.  

Again, in theory, it's all very sensible. But in practise, what we're teaching our children about nutrition is not what they're hearing. We remind them of the importance of sometimes food, and instead they hear "this food is bad and you shouldn't eat it". We promote healthy options, so they feel they can only eat from this small group of approved foods.

Or at least my daughter does, and at seven, with an already heightened risk of developing disordered eating, I worry about the messages she's receiving.

The irony here is school canteens remain filled with burgers, chicken nuggets, pies and sausage rolls, but no one seems bothered about this. As long as we're lambasting parents about the fat content of lunchboxes, no one is concerned about a few chicken nuggets here and there.

This style of food education is clearly not working for our children. What we're saying about food is not what they're hearing and slowly, without the teachers being aware of it, the playground food police are making up their own rules about which foods are okay, and punishing offenders with social exclusion and taunts about gaining weight.

With eating disorders both on the rise, and a problem commonly thought to be only associated with adolescence, I can't help but feel our Primary schools are causing more problems than they're fixing. Developing an obsession early about how healthy each food is, and unable to see the larger picture of dietary balance, our children are struggling.

In our race to stop an obesity epidemic, are we actually causing a generation filled with broken eating habits?

Eating Disorder Counsellor, Emma Hodges says it's possible.

"The introduction of a program like MWEW has great merit and is a good initiative. But by teaching children to become overly focused on diet, food, and exercise, it can lead to disordered eating and unhelpful attitudes surrounding food."

She goes on to add "Healthy is not so easily defined, especially when we are talking about growing bodies which are all different and unique. No singular definition of healthy will fit every size or shape".

So what can we do as parents, when programs like Move Well, Eat Well are here to stay, and we're left to counter their effects at home?

Emma suggests a few things.

"It's important to help children with body gratitude and learn how to intuit their body's needs so they can grow up with a positive sense of self."

"Model the behaviours you would like them to have. It's hard for children to experience healthy eating and body image if you yourself are constantly dieting, or putting yourself down."

She also suggests parents give their children space to talk openly about their anxieties, without saying their fears are nonsense, or silly. "Depending on the age of the child, their anxieties could be surrounding something very literal or something quite imaginative!"

And finally, the advice as always remains the same. If you're worried about behaviour or mood changes in your child, or they're losing weight, a trip to the doctor or the paediatrician is always the next step.

Healthy eating is an important part of every diet, and giving children a range of options for mealtimes is an important thing, as is making sure mealtimes are positive and low stress.

In the meantime, I'll continue to counter the messages my daughter is receiving at school with our own balanced eating plan.

And yes. My plan does involve the occasional piece of guilt free chocolate cake.

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