Diet clubs in primary school – a shocking new trend?
On Tuesday, March 16, at 8 am, I feel a throbbing pain in my head and am yearning for a sip of cool freshwater. Sitting in a hospital waiting room, uncomfortable and unaccompanied, I felt bored. Each time a nurse walks into the room, “I’m hoping my name will be called. Did I mention, “I’m bored and have a thirst induced headache?” This morning, I am in a Melbourne-based hospital, awaiting my turn in the long line of day patient procedures. I am reading with what little attention I can muster but an irritating sound coming from a TV is a constant distraction. As annoying as the TV is, it suddenly demands my full attention. That horrible noise is no longer just noise; this story makes me sit up.
Let’s face it; being a parent of young children is a tricky business, filled with endless obstacles. I’ve learnt ‘I’m not a perfect parent; ’I’ve taken on board the motto, ‘Fake it til you make it!’ Parenthood requires us to pretend that we know what we’re doing until we really do. Children don’t come with instructions, so how else can we explain the first few years of keeping our children alive? Back to my story. That book I was reading; I can’t even recall its contents because my attention was drawn away by the TV to a story that was making headlines that day. This story was so powerfully alarming that I struggled to sit with the information it delivered. Sitting in a crowded room full of strangers, my heart began to race; fear began weaving through my body.
The first words I recall hearing were ‘Primary school-aged children, lunchtimes and diet’, closely followed by the words leading to an increase in eating disorders (EDs) in young children’. This story, yet to be confirmed, has reportedly been linked to several schools around Queensland. Not the kind of news you want to wake up to on a Tuesday morning. Some parents would have reasonably thought this was not relevant to their children because ‘our family have no history so they’ll never have an ED either.’ However, parents cannot afford to be complacent about the effects of eating disorders on children.
Contrary to popular beliefs, you don’t need to have a family history with EDs, be female or an adult, to be vulnerable to the ED illness. Some of the most successful people have battled an ED, and you wouldn’t necessarily know it. With my mind in a state of a panic-induced blur, I couldn’t tell you anything more about the actual content of the story that caught my attention that day; I know, however, it wasn’t comforting and was something not to be swept under the rug. The headline caused my heart to sink, and my body became fidgety and uneasy with fear. As I gazed around the room full of unrecognizable faces, this latest news story began circulating in my mind, stirring up trouble; this was too close to home for comfort, and I had to talk to someone, pronto.
If you haven’t had experience with an ED, you may think I am over-reacting based on my lived experience. Maybe you’re right, but the stakes, our children’s mental and physical health and well-being, are significant. Upon witnessing that disturbing news report, a conversation I’d had with my daughters the previous day began playing over and over within my mind. I needed to get home; I wanted to get out of the hospital and head home to my girls. Of course, this was not an option; it wouldn’t be fair to walk out on my surgeon.
Looking for advice, I contacted my mentor, June, an expert in the field of ED’s. I described what I was seeing on the news and its connection to a scenario playing out at home. Interestingly, June had just received a message with a newspaper article from interstate discussing the same story; primary school children and diet clubs. This other person was also alarmed, given that she has been ill with an eating disorder since her school days. What are the odds? Two women in entirely different states contacting the same person regarding a story that had caught their attention and for an excellent reason? June reassured me ‘’we’d be okay ‘’ we’d work through this together, but first, I had to get through my day surgery.
Before going on, I need to provide context to make clear I’m not an over-reacting parent who is acutely drawn to stories relating to struggles with an ED. Sure, I want to make sure my daughters are safe. One of my children, however, has never been a big eater. She is a self-proclaimed “non-foody”, and what she does like to eat, to an onlooker, would seem as plain as eating cardboard. She’s never been a food lover; I struggle to keep her nourished. Below, I summarise a scenario as it played out just the previous day:
My girls arrive home from school. We go through the afterschool routines as usual. The bag is emptied, and homework is taken out; next, we tend to the dreaded lunchboxes. I say ‘dreaded’ because for as long as I can recall, one of my children has always come home with a nearly full lunchbox. Her excuse, ‘I wasn’t hungry’ or more commonly, ‘I didn’t have time to eat’. On several occasions, I have addressed this issue with her and she always promises to eat more. That never eventuates. Whilst I like to see my children have eaten, I refuse to be the mother who insists on making them eat every last morsel, BUT they need to have made a reasonable effort to eat most of a sandwich and fruit or some biscuits. The remaining food; if it’s just been picked at, I’m good with that; I understand they also want to play and have fun. But for both of them to come home on this particular day, having eaten close to nothing, that pushed my buttons way too far.
I asked, “Why?” To which I received the regular answer, “I wasn’t hungry” from one child and “I didn’t have time” from the other. Knowing dinner time would be much the same struggle, I followed my eldest child to her bedroom, where I found her chatting to a friend. Asking her to get off immediately, I proceeded with a barrage of information for her to mull over (she’s an intelligent little person, and so a barrage is quite manageable). In summary, I assured her that if she continued not to eat, she’d never grow tall (which she wants to be!), her brain wouldn’t learn; her body would struggle to function, and she’d die. I asked her if this is what she wanted? I could see she took this ‘chat’ seriously as l left her room.
I avoid conversations related to mortality but on this occasion, I felt a need to address the situation in a no-bullshit, and go straight to the point. From that night, I passed to my daughters the responsibility of choosing their lunchboxes’ contents (with my supervision) to them. I would stand in the background and watch. They could put in as much or little (within reason) as they wanted, knowing they were expected to eat it.
What can we do?
I don’t believe that packing their own lunchboxes has solved the issue, although I have observed both of my children are now eating more than usual. Underpinning this issue, there is more to address, both in the home and at school. Both parties need to actively support the development of positive eating behaviours, particularly at the lower primary level where habits can be formed, leading to more concerning and problematic behaviours during the highly vulnerable stage of adolescence. But EDs are not generally taken seriously.
One glaring issue brought to my attention by my children is the lack of time allocated at school for the eating process. Ten minutes is all that’s allocated for children from Prep-Grade Three (I don’t have experience with older children, to I can’t speak on their behalf) to enjoy lunch with friends. After 10 minutes, the lunchbox seems to be out of bounds.
Since when have 10 minutes been enough time for each lunch? We allow adults a minimum of 30 minutes at work, so why should children be different? With just 10 minutes, I’m confident I’d be unable to eat much either. So, I know my slow eating children will continue to struggle while this rule is in place. But my biggest dilemma is that while providing just 10 minutes for eating, we are failing to support development of positive eating behaviours in primary school-aged children. This practice is possibly contributing to the reported problem of so-called ‘diet clubs’. By giving children a meagre 10 minutes of eating time, we’re teaching them two possible life lessons:
- Eating is not essential, and gorging our food is the way to eat. Being told we should try to eat as much as we can in as little time as possible suggests everything else is more important than nourishing our growing bodies. The cherry on top? Avoid the pleasure food can give, don’t savour the flavours or textures or the nourishment it provides our growing and developing bodies and minds. There isn’t time for that.
- Quite simply, don’t bother eating; there’s not enough time anyway; in all likeliness, it’ll be impossible to finish, so why bother starting? After 10 minutes, the bell will ring and that yummy home-made sandwich will become a mushy mess if saved for after school. The easiest option, skip that 10-minute allocation and go off and have more playtime. I can ignore my hunger. I can train my body to learn, play, run, jump and support my bodies basic needs without eating lunch, without the energy it needs to function.
How can we expect children to perform at their best, day in, day out at school with an empty belly?
Let’s look at the home. How can we support and encourage our children to eat and nourish the only body they’ll ever have? How can we help them not to fall prey to so-called ‘diet groups’? There’s a lot we can do, and it’s not difficult. It just requires ongoing attention.
- Consider the language used within the home (the school also). Avoid making food seem like a moral choice. For example, don’t say, “Chips are unhealthy, they’re bad, so you probably shouldn’t eat them. On the other hand, that apple looks delicious and its healthy for your body.” This is a form of demonizing food, the apple has a halo, and the chips have fire spurting from them. This kind of talk is not helpful and may lead to an unhealthy obsession with that demon food later on in life.
- Unless for medical reasons, “Elimination diets” are dangerous due to the restriction of certain nutrients and can lead to ongoing problems with food. I’ve attended many birthday parties over the years, and I’ve been too scared to try the delicious birthday cake or other treats. Why? It’s been embedded into my brain that these foods are bad, unhealthy and not the right choice. I had to go through a long and painful process to be able to eat a slice of cake. I now try to eat one slice of cake whenever a family member has a birthday.
- If you must diet, don’t discuss it or make it evident to your children. Do not complain in front of them about the size of your butt or how an outfit no longer fits. Their minds are absorbing it all. Some of these minds will follow the example you’ve set. Seek a healthier way to solve your issue.
- Children take in everything they hear. Use this for your benefit. Talk to your children about food but focus the context on the relationship to our everyday bodily functions and energy needs instead of our appearance. Fats are often blamed for making people fat; they’re the bad guys. Yet, nuts are a good source of fats, essential for our brains. Our brains love fats because they help make them learn new information that comes at us each day. Children need this essential fat if they’re going to fulfil aspirations of becoming an astronaut, doctor, or to join the police force. Discuss foods in terms of nutrients and how these nutrients will fuel their minds and body.
- Overall, it’s essential to teach our children balance. One day eating a nutritionally unbalanced lunch isn’t a big deal. Why? Because there are six other days in the week to eat lunch, and some of those days will be more balanced. We all have days when the shopping hasn’t been done, and all we can
find is the so-called ‘bad stuff.’ Don’t sweat it.
Take home message
Time to eat is an issue that warrants urgent attention. We need to educate our children that playground talk about weight is not acceptable; and that three-letter ‘F’ word needs to be cut from our vocabulary; it’s too damaging. Responsibility stops with us, the parents, in conjunction with educators. Parents need to do their part, and schools need to provide greater education and support to children in the classroom. ED are easier to overcome if caught early. If you suspect your child may be involved in a ‘diet clubs’, seek help straight away. Don’t delay, don’t deny. Parents cannot ‘fix’ an ED without help.
- For further information or help, click the following link: The Butterfly Foundation