I had a teddy-bear shaped red plastic lunchbox in primary school. Mum packed it for me. Generally a sandwich, yoghurt, piece of fruit, bag of crisps, biscuits, jaffa cakes, and a chocolate bar or sweets. If it was a good day, cake. There were no lunchbox police when I was a kid. My mum could have filled that teddy bear full of Rolos and Skittles and Cadburys and nobody would have noticed or cared. My teachers were all too busy being worried about things like … teaching … to bother themselves with judging the insides of the kids’ lunch boxes. Quite right.

Consequently, I was never sent home from school with a note from the headteacher to give to my parents addressing the “unhealthy” foods in my lunchbox. I never had it implied, by the school staff, that there was anything “wrong” with the foods my mum had given me. I was never told that sweets were bad for me. I never had to worry about being anxious at lunchtime because I might get in trouble for the contents of my lunchbox. Apparently, kids today don’t have that luxury.

I never had my lunchbox policed. I was spared from food judgement until my late teens, when my peer group introduced me to it. I didn’t develop my eating disorder until 17. I wonder … would I have developed anorexia earlier had I been taught that food was something to be afraid of in primary school?  I also wonder … how many children will develop eating disorders as a consequence of lunchbox policing that wouldn’t have developed them had they grown up in a time before lunchbox policing?

Lunchbox policing is a result of people freaking out about increasing levels of obesity. The so called “obesity crisis.” Dietary restriction is the knee-jerk reaction. The problem is, not only doesn’t dietary restriction work to reduce levels of obesity, it probably increases them. This is because dieting makes people fatter, not skinner. What really winds me up about prescriptive dietary restriction, is that most health professionals kind of know it doesn’t work, but they don’t have anything else to suggest. So they just tell people to eat less, and even when they are saying it, you can tell they don’t believe it will work. They sound empty and hopeless and beaten because they are saying words they don’t believe in and have been for years and their clients go away and go on diets and come back fatter. But they just keep prescribing diets because they haven’t any other suggestions. They certainly can’t fathom unrestricted eating as a means to optimal health because that would mean allowing people to trust their bodies. Unthinkable.

Most of us who are older than 30 know that the most peaceful and natural years when it comes to eating were when we were aged ten or younger. Before the diet police started to whisper at us. Before we knew that food judgement was a thing. Before we labeled foods as “good” or “bad.” Most people look back on those years with yearning. If only you could unlearn all the judgement and therefore lose the anxiety that accompanies it (you can.). It makes me sad to think that under 10s now don’t even have that long. They have until they start primary school if they are lucky, before the food-stress starts.

Issues with Food Policing

There is no evidence restricting the amount of “unhealthy” foods children eat helps with “obesity crisis.” It just seems to be assumed in blind faith that restriction is the answer to obesity, even though, thus far, the diet industry (massive as it is) hasn’t “solved” obesity. In fact rates of obesity seem to have increased since dieting marketing gained steam. One would think, that for something to become widespread protocol, there would need to be long-term studies done into the effectiveness of the strategy.

Food judgement is a hell that our culture puts us in. The idea that some foods are “good” and others are “bad” and the food and eating anxiety that accompanies this concept, once learned, takes a heck of a lot of effort to unlearn. For many people who don’t develop diagnosed restrictive eating disorders, there is low to medium level anxiety around choosing foods to eat that cause eating in general to lose a lot of its joy.

Orthorexia is rampant in our culture, and the negative mental health consequences of this commonplace disorder shouldn’t be underestimated. Orthorexia not only increases levels of anxiety, it leads people to believe they have to spend more money on expensive foods they consider ‘healthy” and therefore increases the marginalization of lower-income families. Orthorexia is a wealthy person’s game. Only, it isn’t. I have known orthorexia put people in credit card debt. Spending money they don’t have on Ninja juicers and copious amounts of kale and “superfood” supplements. Lunchbox policing is only going to put the idea of the “healthy” food value system onto kids at an earlier age and increase their likelihood of developing anything from a degree of orthorexia to a full blown eating disorder. And I would like to add that just because a “degree of orthorexia” isn’t a “full blown eating disorder” doesn’t mean it isn’t a horrible affliction to have to live with.

All you have to do is spend some time on social media and you will find anecdotal evidence that food policing increases levels of anxiety in children, and parents. Especially parents who have a history of eating disorders in their family and understand the damage such practices can do. Then of course you have lower-income families and the additional stress that food policing of “unhealthy” (read, cheaper,) food has.

And why the bastardisation of sugar? Sugar isn’t good or bad: it is simply … sugar. Yet it is often treated like public enemy number one. People rabbit on about sugar addiction and compare the stuff to crack cocaine. Sugar addiction isn’t a thing. It is not an addictive substance. It doesn’t cause the same activation in the brain as addictive substances do. I did a podcast with the researcher who led a study looking into that. Furthermore, findings from the animal studies imply that behaviours such as bingeing occur only when access to sugar is restricted. This means, that the more you deny a child sugary foods, the more likely it is that when they do have access to sugary foods, they will binge on them. Whereas if sugar isn’t forbidden, it’s more likely that a moderate amount will be eaten.
Regardless of all that, the bottom line is that kids having fat on them isn’t the worst thing in the world. It really, really isn’t. Fat is fuel for development and growth. If it is there, it is probably meant to be there. You know why? Because bodies are incredible and know what they are doing. If fat is there, let it be there.
As a culture, we need to address our own fear of weight gain, and fear of fat. And when I say “we,” I mean healthcare professionals and policy makers. Your fear of fat is running the show, and it is ruining kids’ relationships with their bodies before they have even had a chance. You are not solving anything by forcing dietary restriction. If dietary restriction worked, the would be no “obesity crisis” because just about everyone out there who is in a larger body is restricting already and has been for most of their lives. Most of them will tell you that they are larger now than they were before they began restricting. So just stop it. Stop pushing a solution we all know doesn’t work.
I’m not saying kids should be fed a diet of nothing but sugar. I am saying that if you try and limit sugar for kids, you actually set them up for eating more sugar. So a child has some fat on them? Never mind. Let it go. They will be fine because their body is wiser than your judgement of it is. Leave the chocolate bars alone. Focus that energy elsewhere — somewhere it may actually do some good. Stop projecting your own fear of weight gain, fear of fat, fear of food, onto 6 year olds. Protect them from it for as long as possible. Encourage them to eat chocolate hob-nobs like they have no fear. Let them enjoy food, and learn from them, because when it comes to having a positive relationship with their bodies and food, they are doing it better than you are.

Dulloo AG, Jacquet J, Montani JP, Schutz Y. How dieting makes the lean fatter: from a perspective of body composition autoregulation through adipostats and proteinstats awaiting discovery. Obes Rev. 2015;16 Suppl 1:25-35. doi:10.1111/obr.12253   https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25614201/

Jennifer Orlet Fisher, Leann Lipps Birch, Restricting access to palatable foods affects children’s behavioral response, food selection, and intake, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 69, Issue 6, June 1999, Pages 1264–1272, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/69.6.1264

Fisher JO, Birch LL. Restricting access to foods and children’s eating. Appetite. 1999;32(3):405-419. doi:10.1006/appe.1999.0231

Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016;55(Suppl 2):55-69. doi:10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: