Fears Australian schools could be doing more harm than good in their quest for healthy eating
For decades, we have been told we need to eat a healthy diet in order to grow “big and strong”.
- An increasing number of schools are adopting healthy eating strategies
- But experts are worried this could be contributing to a harmful diet culture
- Children are being encouraged to eat ‘intuitively’ by listening to their bodies
Education departments across the country all have healthy eating strategies in some form or another.
But one dietitian is worried these policies are doing more harm than good by driving “food policing” and is on a mission to change schools’ approach.
Paediatric dietitian Kyla Smith has a PhD in childhood obesity and weight management and teaches parents and caregivers how to feed babies and toddlers.
Dr Smith advocates what is known as the “division of responsibility” feeding model where, put simply, parents or caregivers decide what, where and when a child eats, and the child decides if and how much they will eat.
For many parents, the idea is startling and even absurd, but Dr Smith believes the evidence is clear.
“When caregivers try to decide how much a child should eat, they start taking over the child’s role, and this usually has unintended negative consequences.
“The child usually does the exact opposite of what we’re aiming for.
“The evidence consistently shows that restriction [limiting servings] or controlling feeding practices, like having to eat ‘x’ number of bites, results in less self-regulation and more fussy eating.”
So when her daughter Elsie, 4, returned home from kindergarten excited she had eaten all of her lunch, Dr Smith was frustrated.
“We’ve never made a big deal of [this] before. She also told me that I had to pack a sandwich because she needs to eat that first,” she said.
Dr Smith was particularly annoyed when Elsie enquired if her one-year-old sister’s birthday cake was “healthy”.
Parents bemoan ‘lunch box audits’
When she documented her annoyance to her 68,000 social media followers, the response from parents was unlike anything she had ever encountered.
Her direct message box exploded with complaints of “lunch box audits” and “food policing” at schools, and it propelled her to act.
Within weeks, Dr Smith established an advocacy arm of her business to enable schools to create a “safe and empowering food environment”.
There are resources available for both parents and schools on how to do this and there is also an open letter signed by other experts warning about the significant long-term consequences of the current approach.
“What I want to be able to do is encourage confident, adventurous eaters who feel good about food, rather than trying to push kids into healthy eating through fear, or shame, or worry, or any of those kinds of forced behaviours,” Dr Smith said.
“This idea that you have to eat certain food before you’re allowed to eat other foods … [that] you have to eat a certain amount, all those are signs of disordered eating.
“That’s not trusting your body, listening to your internal cues, you know, growing up to eat a variety of things. It’s really not the way that we’re heading now.”
She was sympathetic to the notion that schools are doing what they think is best for children, but insisted there was a better way to go about it.
“I don’t want to blame teachers for what’s happening … I totally get that all the things that they’re doing are well-intentioned, but there are so many little problems with telling kids how much they have to eat, or telling kids what order they have to eat things in.”
The problem with fruit and veg
One of the trends Dr Smith is particularly concerned about is schools dictating that children only eat fruit and vegetables for morning tea.
It appears the rule has crept in following the introduction of the Crunch and Sip program run by the WA Cancer Council.
The program was designed as a way to boost kids’ fruit and vegetable intake by creating an eating opportunity inside the classroom, in addition to morning recess and lunch.
Instead, many schools use it in place of recess.
“You can’t tell [children] what they have to eat,” Dr Smith said.
“In fact, they’re low in energy, [so while] they’re nutritious, they don’t have enough in them to keep kids going.
“We’re also forgetting that there are heaps of kids with challenges [and] eating difficulties with anxiety at school. Adding the extra pressure on top of this is just misguided.”
She also urges compassion and empathy for children who are attending school with highly processed foods, suggesting there are likely other issues at play.
“Every parent is doing the best they can for their kids,” Dr Smith said.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a parent who has capacity to send something else, but is choosing to do that.
“So I think that’s something that needs to be addressed with the parent if it’s a problem.”
But what about the childhood obesity epidemic?
With statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showing 25 per cent of Australian children and adolescents are obese, many people might argue schools should be doing all they can to promote healthy eating.
Amelia Harray is a senior research fellow in paediatric diabetes and obesity with the Telethon Kids Institute and said while healthy eating guidelines are important, they should not be policed by schools.
“It’s a parent’s role to fill a lunch box and it’s a child’s role to decide when they eat it, and what they eat,” Dr Harray said.
Dr Harray said obesity can result from a number of factors, both environmental and personal, with much of that stemming from relationships with food.
‘[It’s important] people and kids aren’t feeling pressured to eat certain things at different times,” she said.
“[That can put them at] risk of disordered eating in the future that can result in obesity.
“Schools don’t have the responsibility to control what kids eat and doing so could form unhealthy relationships with food that could result in [them becoming] overweight and obese later in life.”
Food policing causing lunch box rage
Perth mum Susie has worked hard to ensure her daughter Annabel eats “intuitively”, eating as much or as little as she feels she needs.
So when the three-year-old asked her to stop packing sandwiches, the alarm bells began to ring.
It emerged Annabel’s teacher had insisted she ate her sandwich before she ate anything else in her lunch box, an edict that infuriated Susie.
“I’m her mum, and I choose what she gets given and she decides what order to eat. And I’m completely happy if she eats her banana bread first,” Susie said.
“I don’t send anything that I’m not happy for her to eat.
“Healthy eating doesn’t mean eating the same way as everyone else [and] that you can only eat fruit and vegetables to be healthy.
“All foods have value and if some of that value is, you know, enjoying what you’re eating or the joy of sharing food with your friends [then that’s valid].”
Experts agree schools need to evolve
Sydney-based eating disorder counsellor Catrina Smith is one of the experts who has added her name to Dr Smith’s open letter to schools.
Ms Smith is curious as to why teachers insist children must eat their fruit or vegetables before a muffin.
“What is the motivation of that?” Ms Smith said.
“Because food is food. There’s no good or bad food, there’s no preference of what food is better over another … it doesn’t have morals, because it’s food.
“And my concern is that we’re sending children messages that are actually rooted in diet culture, which then exposes them to dieting from a young age or rigid rules and routines around food.
“Dieting is the most common precursor for developing either disordered eating or an eating disorder, and if we’re sending young, vulnerable children these messages from such a young age … where’s that going to lead?
“What we need to do … is to learn to intuitively eat. We need to listen to our bodies, and if our bodies are saying that we want to eat the muffin first then that’s what we should be doing.”