Co-written with Naureen Hunani, RD
The school year has been underway for almost 2 months. How are you coping with school lunches and snacks? If you are feeling stressed, frustrated and overwhelmed by the food rules, you are not alone. I am not talking about banned foods due to life-threatening food allergies but so-called “healthy” food rules. Food rules like these lead to people feeling ashamed and guilty of eating the banned food- emotions that harmful, not helpful for our health. Here is my take on why we should ban food shaming in schools.
Although I do not yet have children in the school system, the thought of them learning about food and nutrition from a fatphobic and diet centered culture terrifies me. The horror stories about activities that have been carried out in some classrooms do little to boost my confidence.
As a non-diet, weight neutral dietitian and intuitive eating advocate, I am irritated daily by food fearing messages on the tv, in magazines, and social media. The thought that vulnerable, impressionable children are subjected to these harmful messages at school through food rules enrages me. As a mom, it scares me for my own children as well as yours.
I reached out to a fellow non-diet dietitian who is experiencing the school system with her child, for the first time. Naureen Hunani is not only a dietitian, but specializes in family and pediatric nutrition. Here is our take on what you need to know about this rising trend and why it is important to protect our kids.
Why We Must Ban Food Shaming in Schools
There seems to be an important rise in food shaming in schools. Naureen recounts that in the last few months, she has encountered countless parents who have reported their children being “food lectured” by school authorities during lunch and snack times. “Food Shaming” and “Food Policing” seems to be a very common phenomenon these days and can take many forms. Making negative comments about the content of a child’s lunchbox, asking kids to eat their food in the hallway and removing them from their natural eating environment as a punishment, or taking away food from a student’s hands because it is considered to be “unhealthy” are all prime examples of food shaming. Publicly humiliating a kid for food choices that may or may not be under his control sounds terrible and unethical. So how and why is it permitted in our institutions?
A little background on “childhood obesity” and how it relates to food shaming
There has been a heavy focus on reducing “childhood obesity” in North America since the early 90’s. Our efforts to slim down our kids have lead to some very unhealthy practices. Many institutions have implement unpractical and unethical food policies that are causing more harm than good. The obsession of raising slim children comes at a cost and impacts their mental and emotional well-being.
Eating disorders in children, something we hardly talk about, are also on the rise! “Treating obesity” and disordered eating go hand in hand. Eating disorders can be a side effect of dieting and weight control measures. From the current trends, it seems that most forbidden foods in schools seems to contain sugar and fat. Both of these nutrients, though deemed essential, have gotten a bad reputation in the last few decades and have been falsely accused to be the culprit of childhood obesity. Teaching kids to fear “bad” foods will not make them any healthier but will open the door to more complicated health issues: disordered eating.
We don’t have full control over our weight and the theory that fat kids eat more and move less has been debunked. Genetics play a much bigger role in how our bodies are shaped than food intake and exercise yet we still impose strategies and policies for weight loss. We know that weight is not a good predictor of health. Not all fat kids are unhealthy and not all lean kids are healthy. Health is so much more complex than a number on a scale.
Not all children have equal access to food
We live in a country where 1/5 children live in poverty. Eating foods that are considered “healthy” are not an option for many Canadian families. Food insecurity is real and impacts the lives of many children. In 2016, 8 out of 10 provinces noted an increase in food bank usage and more than one-third of food bank users across Canada were children. Not having equal access to food and living in poverty has far greater impact on health than a chocolate chip granola bar (a food that is commonly banned in classrooms). It is time we look at the bigger picture and stop blaming food for our children’s “poor health”.
Labeling food as “good” or “bad” is NOT helpful
How a food winds up with a good or bad label is highly subjective and usually arbitrary. For every nutrient or food on earth, there is a website or guru who is against it: gluten, soy, fructose, saturated fat, dairy, fruit, etc. The black and white way of thinking about food is flawed and unhealthy- for both the mind and the body. Two studies demonstrate examples of this. Firstly, we tend to think of forbidden foods more often (ie. Become preoccupied with them), even if we don’t like the food! Secondly, some studies have even shown that children will eat more of a food if it is labeled as off-limits.
Labeling foods as “bad” leads to good-intentioned policymakers to restrict them in places like schools. However, restriction of “bad” foods usually leads to bingeing or overeating those foods followed by guilt or shame. None of these reactions lead to greater health.
The definition of “healthy” is highly subjective
What I consider healthy, you may not… Dried raisins which are an excellent snack may or may
not make every teacher’s “healthy food list” because of their natural sugar content. And yes, I (Naureen)
have met a parent who received a note in his child’s lunchbox because the dried raisins were
too high in sugar!
Cheese which again provides many nutrients may be labelled “too fatty” for some. Rigid
nutrition guidelines based on no solid science on fat and sugar have distorted our views of what
a balance and varied diet looks like. The only “healthy food” philosophy I like to advocate for is
that all foods fit. Period.
Read more about labeling foods as good/bad, healthy/unhealthy in this article : Eating in Secret and Other Embarrassing Side Effects of Dieting.
What about the picky eaters?
As a family and pediatric dietitian, Naureen works with children who have ARFID and are extremely picky eaters. These children have a very limited number of foods they are able to eat (which usually can improve with feeding therapy) and are not just “being difficult” as they’ve been labeled in the past. This often leaves parents deeply stressed about what to put into lunchboxes once these accepted foods are combined with school and classroom food rules. Many children who are extremely picky eaters already struggle with malnutrition or undereating. Limiting further what they are allowed to eat during the day puts them further at risk. To learn more about ARFID and picky eating, check this out.
All parents know that fruit and vegetables are great for their children. But what if it was nearly impossible to get those foods into the child’s stomach? About 50% of kids are considered to be picky eaters at some point in their development. Out of those children, 5-22.5% meet the criteria for Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) previously known as Selective Eating Disorder. Many of these kids have either developmental gaps that prevent them from eating a varied diet, have experienced trauma or pain associated with feeding or have sensory challenges that make eating difficult. For these children, getting enough calories to sustain life and enjoyment of food is a priority not impressing their teachers with broccoli and hummus.
We know that kids need the energy from foods to play and learn. What is the point of loading your kids lunch box with foods that will not be eaten? As a dietitian and a feeding therapist, I always tell parents of kids with picky eating or ARFID to offer safe foods for lunches/snacks. Learning about new foods and exposure is always an option at home. Policy makers at school need to be sensitive to this and understand that parents have the full authority to decide what their kid should or shouldn’t eat.
How can we raise healthy kids?
Schools may offer subsidized lunch/snack programs to make sure that all kids have access to nutritious and balanced meals. These types of programs can help all kids especially those coming from lower socio economic status. Children deserve to eat in a stress-free and judgment-free environment where they feel safe to eat foods their bodies agree with and find enjoyment and pleasure in food.
Teaching children self-care from an early age and focusing more on behaviors rather than “good or bad” foods can be more beneficial and can provide long-term solutions to health. Developing a healthy relationship with food and our bodies is as important if not more than the food choices we make. Listening to children’s appetite and respecting hunger signals instead of teaching them to look for external cues on when and what to eat steers them away from becoming intuitive, mindful and competent eaters.
Promoting joyful movement and not exercise for the sake of burning calories and losing weight should be the focused in schools along with teaching body diversity and having a weight inclusive mindset. Implementing policies to reduce weight related bullying in schools can significantly improve the well-being of all children. Weight-related bullying can lead to an increase in negative feelings including anxiety and symptoms of depression, low self-esteem,
low energy, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and decrease self-worth. This can lead to emotional eating, which can then result in further weight gain. To stop this cycle, we need to focus less on weight/diet and more on self-acceptance, body positivity.
Speak out in defense of the health of your children
If you feel that the “healthy” food rules at your school have gone too far, know that you are not alone. Speaking out against these unhealthy rules does not make you a difficult parent! It makes you an advocate for your child’s mental and physical health.
Naureen Hunani is a Montreal-based nutritionist/registered dietitian and a nutrition expert for Mom Talk on Breakfast Television. She has been helping families overcome their nutritional challenges for over a decade. Naureen is a certified SOS feeding therapist with a focus on children who are picky eaters and problem feeders. She also offers a variety of workshops and seminars to medical professionals, childcare educator or child care workers.