Monday, 9 February 2009

Abstinence only dieting

I see there has been a bit of a stash between the usual suspects about Anne Tolley's decision to remove a national directive requiring all schools to serve only healthy food and beverage options. The argument basically boils down gunning down the evil lunchbox nazis versus the evil corporations trying to make our kids blow up like blimps in order to turn a quick buck.

Stuck in the middle of this are the parents who trying to do their best for their kids. I was one of those annoying kids who wouldn’t eat the ‘healthy lunches’ my mum packed. At one stage I had a whole month's worth of fruit in various states of decay under my bed which was the breaking point for my mother. I made my own lunch from then on except for the a once-a-week treat of buying from the school tuckshop and yes, I usually ordered a pie or something equally 'bad' to eat. So I'm hazarding a guess that many parents particularly those dealing with fussy eaters really don't want to deal with any more shit about their kids' eating habits. Having lived with a fussy eater to end them all, getting the kid to eat SOMETHING let alone eat all the right things is so torturous that you would rather walk buck naked down Queen Street doing the chicken dance I've got to side with them.

My question is why did what we eat and in particular what kids consume become such a source of conflict? It totally baffles me as to why such a pleasurable activity as eating should be creating so many headlines and angst. Undoubtedly my experience colours my perspective. Eating meals together as often as possible was always big thing growing up and with a big family it was always case of eat or be eaten. More recently I've lived with the Suit where we have attained such a level of food geekiness that alongside 'regular cooking' homemade breads, pizza, pasta noodles, sorbets are often found in my kitchen.

I'm sure I'm not alone. I once read somewhere that when people emigrate to a strange land the last of the traditions of the 'mother country' to die is always the food. And that makes sense. Food marks our big occasions. What is a birthday or wedding for that matter without some form of cake? Graduation always seem to include a lunch/breakfast on the parents' dime. Christmas has a whole raft of foods attached to it and you betcha I'll be chowing down on my chocolate bunny at Easter. But somewhere along the line these foods became bad.

Of course the 'obesity epidemic' is the reason there is so much hysteria around promoting 'healthy' eating patterns. One critical component missing from this discussion is the other end of the weight spectrum were anorexia and bulimia are still taking (predominately) young girls' lives with no concern to their well being yet these eating disorders take lives and a lot more quickly than a size 16 ass.

Moreover not letting kids have the slightest opportunity to make their own decisions about food turns food into a control issue. Kids who are surrounded by adults angsting about their eating seem to develop two coping strategies. 'Bad food' immediately becomes forbidden fruit that they gorge themselves on the minute they can get away from the domineering adults or they just stop eating as a way to stick it to their parents. Neither of these outcomes actually promotes a positive relationship with food nor does it aid kids to develop good eating patterns as adults.

Because lets face it this angsting over food isn't something that magically goes away when you’re an adult. The big fast food chains with their fries that on a bad day I swear are laced with heroin are always there to tempt you while the anti-obesity scare factories that we are too fat and just a few chocolate cookies away from death's door. Add in the body bashing that makes up the bulk of the content in most women's magazines not to mention the odd article in serious publications and you find many adults struggle to maintain a 'healthy' relationship with food themselves.

In many ways the anti-junk food movement reminds me of those anti-sex education campaigners who think the very mention of anything reproductively related around children will turn them into sex-crazed maniacs. Both groups do children a huge disservice by sheltering them from every evil in the world. Like it or not decision-making is a skill that is learned with practice and I firmly believe children should be practicing it from the time they are small. I would hazard a guess that the same people who want to ban junk food from well everywhere are generally the same people who don't let their kids play outside for fear of skin cancer/bee stings/accidents/abduction etc.

I realize that for most parents these fears are very real as too is the burn of being labeled a bad parent for not watching over your kids 24/7. But I wonder if this increase in our collective asses, particularly of kids, has come about by removing the freedom for them to run around and burn off some of those pies. Not to mention letting our bodies and brains rather than industries, fast food or otherwise, guide us as to what we should put in our mouths. Because like sex, food is something to be enjoyed not to be ashamed of.

23 comments:

Giovanni said...

Ohhhh, thank you so much for this. Brilliantly put.

Alison said...

Great post Ex-Expat!

I'm a die-hard Green voter, but I'll admit that their no-tolerance approach to "junk"-food is one area where my opinion really diverges from the party policy. Food is morally neutral! Why do we insist on attaching moral judgments to it? And how have we developed such a messed up idea of that goodness and badness that a food becomes "bad" just by containing fat or sugar, even if it's highly nutritious? Even steamed veges can apparently become "bad" when topped with something as nutritious as a cheese sauce. That evil, conniving cheese sauce!

Mikaere Curtis said...

The Green position is not an attack on food at all, nor is it an attempt to turn food into an issue of control and power.

Rather, it is one step toward addressing the issues associated with unhealthy diets. One of these is the effect of diet on the ability of kids to learn in the classroom. Sugar has well-document impacts on kids and their ability to concentrate. Why sell it to them in the school tuck shop ? It's entirely counter-productive.

Junk food in schools is not an issue of choice (parents can always pack junk-laden lunches if that's their buzz), it is an issue of accessibility. Junk food is a food of convenience, and the most convenient way to get it at school is via the school tuck shop. Removing the most convenient vector is a simple way to make junk food less accessible, ergo, kids will eat more healthily.

Reducing convenience is not an attack on freedom. People will always have the choice to eat junk food if they want. We know that diets that are high in sugary foods are a major cause of type 2 diabetes in young people, and one way to combat this is to make healthy options the most convenient options.

Unhealthy choices should be active choices, not passive choices - as they presently are.

Giovanni said...

Couple of things here: hard to argue that a ban on a certain type of food is not an issue of control and power, regardless of protestations to the contrary. But, much more to the point, where was the targeted funding to accompany the ban? Stocking healthy food (both because it is more perishable, and less popular) is a lot more expensive for a school, especially a small a school, and even more so a low-decile small school.

The ex-expat said...

Mikaere,
My point was that merely removing 'bad foods' isn't going to do that much to stop obesity and in fact just makes food more of a battle ground. We can not talk about obesity without mentioning regular exercise or indeed how to promote better access to 'healthy' food.

Having been overseas for a few years I was amazed at how the schools there actually served proper hot meals to students in places designed for students to eat in (conversely a lot overseas students and parents are appalled at the lack of lunchtime facilities here). Sure makes a difference from eating a sandwich in a cold windy playground but one of those 'too expensive to even think about' projects in New Zealand.

Alison said...

Mikaere, my problem with the Green approach to food isn't with control and power. I am all in favour of encouraging schools to promote and stock healthy food choices, and make them more affordable, however, I'm concerned that by labelling all junkfood as "bad" we risk teaching our children to think of food in disordered terms. Furthermore, while too much sugar can hinder learning, too little can as well - I, for one, have long known that I need a more easily-absorbed form of sugar in the middle of the day if I am to remain alert all afternoon. Complex carbs give me energy to get through to dinner, but simple carbs provide "brainfood", if you like. I consider that a healthy understanding of my body's biorhythm, not a "naughty", unreasonable or irrational choice, which is the message a child might take from our current approach to fat and sugar.

I would much prefer to see a Health-at-Every-Size approach, which recognises that all food has a place in the diet, and that people are capable of making balanced choices when they have the economic wherewithal and experience to do so.

Please don't suppose that I think the Green approach to food is the cause of the problem. I don't, but I do think it is symptomatic of a wider cultural distrust of our bodies that is quite unhealthy.

M-H said...

Angsting about what/how much your kids eat isn't new. I once saw a presentation by a social historian about how the Health Camp movement originally came about because people were concerned that some children were too thin (in the 40s and 50s I think). When I was a mother in the 1970s there was lots of angsting about how to get your kids to eat well, but it has reached new highs, I agree. I suppose that it's easier to let kids eat more junk than healthy food, but I don't think that mothers are necessarily lazier than they used to be. But I agree most with the point that it's not necessarily the pies themselves that are problem, but the lack of exercise that's being undertaken to burn them off. And that's a failure of parenting, IMHO.

Roger Nome said...

"So I'm hazarding a guess that many parents particularly those dealing with fussy eaters really don't want to deal with any more shit about their kids' eating habits."

The survival instinct is a pretty strong one. They aren't going to starve, so what's the problem? Give them the foods they like, just make sure they're not the low-nutrition, high calorie options. Simple.

Parents don't do their children any favours by giving them no boundaries (this applies to many areas pf "appetite")- in fact you're actually ham-stringing them for the rest of their lives.

Learn what boundaries are going to give your children a good quality of life and apply them, but at the same time, of course you also have to foster decision making skills - but do it in non-contentious areas to start with (i.e. do you want to go to the museum or park today etc ...).

It's not about giving children poor self-image, it's about teaching moderation.

This is something some feminists I know very well don't seem to understand. I've seen some gorge themselves nutritionless garbage as a "fuck you" to patriarchy. But Healthy living isn't a "patriarchal construct" - if you radiate heath and energy you're going to be attractive to some people, no matter if you're a size 16 or a size 8. SO it's not about looking like a fashion model/junkie - it's about feeling good and having a good quality of life.

So it seems to me as though you've fallen into the trap of conflating the message of healthy living with "beauty-myth" stuff (i.e. unhealthy dieting which causes poor body image). Surely you can see the difference?

Mikaere Curtis said...

Sure makes a difference from eating a sandwich in a cold windy playground but one of those 'too expensive to even think about' projects in New Zealand.
This factor is a constant, and has been in place since well before the rise obesity and other diet-related issues, and is therefore unrelated. Watching Jamie Oliver's series on British school lunches does not fill me with enthusiasm for their approach, although we could probably do it successfully here given the resources.

hard to argue that a ban on a certain type of food is not an issue of control and power, regardless of protestations to the contrary.
And I'd argue that removing accessibility is not the same as removing a freedom. There's no ban on junk food at school, but there is a ban on the school's themselves selling the junk food.

A huge factor in this is parental choice. I'd rather have it that the default is a healthy diet, and that parental choice/action is required to implement an unhealthy diet.

I'm concerned that by labelling all junkfood as "bad" we risk teaching our children to think of food in disordered terms.
I agree, it's only unhealthy if you have it too much. My kids get to eat junk food every now and then, and they know that it's a special treat rather than a typical dietary option.

I do think [the Green approach] is symptomatic of a wider cultural distrust of our bodies that is quite unhealthy.
I disagree. I schools started doing PE lessons on how the laz-about on a couch watching TV, people would be rightly concerned about this. Same goes for food the schools sell - it should be healthy because that is best for the kids.

Angsting about what/how much your kids eat isn't new.
Agreed, but what is new since you were bringing up kids in the '70s is the unprecedented levels of early-onset type II diabetes and childhood obesity.

We've had generations of laissez-faire attitudes to junk food (especially promotion), and no we've got major health issues (where the word "epidemic" is not a farfetched overstatement).

Tell you what, more laissez-faire is not the answer. Unless, of course, the question is "how do I maximise profits on junk food whilst outsourcing the resultant social costs onto the rest of society".

Giovanni said...

And I'd argue that removing accessibility is not the same as removing a freedom. There's no ban on junk food at school, but there is a ban on the school's themselves selling the junk food.

A huge factor in this is parental choice. I'd rather have it that the default is a healthy diet, and that parental choice/action is required to implement an unhealthy diet.


Yes, the factor is parental choice, so let's remove that choice. Nothing about power and control there! But again I ask you: where was the targeted funding? Because as things stood before the ban was removed, all it was going to achieve at our school - in an area well served by dairies filled to the rafter with junk food - was put pressure on our budget and take up a couple more of our weekends to fundraise for it. Thanks, but no thanks.

I'm sure it would have been very well received in Khandallah, though, I'll give you that.

Alison said...

"I do think [the Green approach] is symptomatic of a wider cultural distrust of our bodies that is quite unhealthy."

I disagree. I schools started doing PE lessons on how the laz-about on a couch watching TV, people would be rightly concerned about this. Same goes for food the schools sell - it should be healthy because that is best for the kids.


But what about mental health? If we say that all junk-food is off-limits, except when it's rationed by parents, we create a binge mentality where children don't learn to respond to physical cues, and do eat junk-food (sometimes until they're sick, as we've all seen at birthday parties!) when they're not in a controlled setting, because they don't know when they're next going to have access to it. That's a symptom of disordered eating, and it easily continues into adulthood. We did it with alcohol in the days of the 6pm swill, and the country is still struggling with the results.

In a culture where a wide range of food is available, without guilt attached, people learn to follow their own cues (and again, we make the same observation about alcohol). Most people in that setting don't generally just gorge on junk or "treats", because it doesn't actually satisfy in the long-term. I am all in favour of creating that culture, but I think that's more likely to happen through teaching kids to follow hunger cues and removing the sparkly advertising, than through attaching a stigma to some "treat" food from a young age.

All the women I know with eating disorders or suspected eating disorders talk about being "bad" when they eat food that is traditionally off-limits. All of them feel guilty when they eat a small amount. Many reason away binges as "a feast before the famine" - some then purge, others starve themselves, others punish themselves with inappropriate amounts of exercise. On many occasions lately, I've heard quite young kids making the same statements that set alarm bells ringing when I hear them in adults.

Yes, we need to give kids - all kids, not just the wealthy ones - access to nutritious food, but I'm really concerned that we're setting them up for a lifetime of guilt-induced eating, and while it is largely ignored, those with eating disorders have significantly worse health outcomes than those in the overweight or even moderately obese categories.

Brett Dale said...

I always ate what was in my lunchbox, and I always knew what day of the week it was by what sandwiches I had.

Monday. Jam
Tueday. Tomatoes
Wednesday. Lettuce and marmite
Thursday. Egg
Friday, ham and mustard.

Then again when I was at school there was no maccas in the area.

Hugh said...

I hate to agree with the Kiwiblog right and their howls of 'nanny state', but I always thought this campaign was pretty unpleasant. At its worst this just stinks of the middle class berating the poor about their life choices and calling it 'raising awareness'.

I mean do we seriously think the reason junk food gets eaten is because we just haven't reached a sufficient level of moralising to deter people?

lara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lauredhel said...

One of the bigger problems with "red-light"/"zero-tolerance" lunch food programmes is that the definition of "healthy food" is completely subjective, and often ridiculous.

One kid (mine, as a not-so-hypothetical example) might go to school with a homemade pineapple & mushroom pizza, or a "burrito" (low-fat refried beans, avocado, tomato, sour cream, on a wholemeal tortilla), or a "cupcake" (home-baked fruit muffin with olive oil that he helped cook himself), or several chocolate chips (dark 'real' chocolate). All of these are healthy, nutritious foods; all could be banned under some of these policies.

Meanwhile, the kid who eats nothing but plastic cheese on Wonderbread with a side serve of trans-fat-laden crackers fits into the policy just fine.

Carol said...

I think that schools should be taking leadership in promoting healthy eating and lifestyles, and to provide a counter to the aggressive and attractive marketing of fun food of low nutritional value to children. I think the scrapping of the last government's policy on this is a step backward. The debate here seems not to have accounted for the positive, multi-faceted and comprehensive way schools were responding to the nutrition policy.

Leila Harre on 9-to-noon yesterday said that the scrapping made no sense as it came at a time when schools had put in place nutrition policies. It also didn't usually involve banning sausage-sizzles etc at fundraisers. I think most nutritionists and educaters realise it's counter-productive to go for a total abstinance rule, and to promote balanced eating and life-styles, while allowing for a certain amount of low-nutrition fun eating.

A quick googler- search shows there are many documents developed by schools, the heart foundation etc, that take a comprehensive and multi-facted approach. It includes classroom education on healthy eating and lifestyles. It wouldn't make any sense if such education was going on, while the school was setting a bad example by having school shops foregrounding poor eating choices.

School policies I flicked through aim to work with businesses to try to provide healthy choices to children, among other things.

I think leaving it up to childten's and/or parents' choices, and leaving it up to the market to decide + providing nutritional information would not be enough.

So, basically, healthy eating and lifestyles should be a central part of schools' education policies. This doesn't involve an abstinence approach, but provides leadership from schools, negotiation with local businesses, and awareness that there is plenty of scope for choice from parents and children, and within our wider consumerist society.

Anonymous said...

It is obscene that schools should be in the business of selling rubbish food. If what kids want to eat isn't against the law, fine, go to the dairy and buy it but I seriously object to this stuff being pushed within schools.

And it is ridiculous "PC gone mad" (to coin a phrase) to suggest that discussion of this is an attack on the working class. This is a public health issue. If you want to talk about the cost of healthy food then the real question is why are we so far removed from the source of our food that multinational shite is distributed more widely than locally grown fruit and veges? This is exactly why the solution to this needs to include discussion of changes to policy.

katy

Giovanni said...

And it is ridiculous "PC gone mad" (to coin a phrase) to suggest that discussion of this is an attack on the working class

Fund the schools to provide the healthy food then. I'd still be against the policy, but at least it'd stop being an attack on the working class.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that schools should be in the business of providing food, and certainly not in relying on the selling of food to make a profit. If it is about hunger then sure, maybe there is a place for food to provided by a central agency but why do we need to try and make a buck out of everything?? One of the things that impresses me about Japan is that nutritious lunches and lunch options are provided by not-for-profit providers for kids from kindy-uni, and it is standard for companies to do so also.

Giovanni said...

I don't think that schools should be in the business of providing food, and certainly not in relying on the selling of food to make a profit. If it is about hunger then sure, maybe there is a place for food to provided by a central agency but why do we need to try and make a buck out of everything?

Small and low decile schools don't really make money out of selling food, but many of their kids need the service, so they provide it. At any rate, it has to be seen in the context of the underfunding of schools across the board: if you take money away, even for the noblest of reasons, then you have to make up for it. Otherwise I'd have to question what your constituency is.

Giovanni said...

A nice counterpoint to your post, Ex-expat, from the always literature and amusing Mr. Hatherley.

Giovanni said...

It's quite possible I meant 'literate' there. Ah, screw it.

Hugh said...

And it is ridiculous "PC gone mad" (to coin a phrase) to suggest that discussion of this is an attack on the working class. This is a public health issue.

OK, I'm going to presume that 'PC gone mad' comment was made ironically.

It absolutely is an attack on the working class, I'm sorry. Do you really think the reason the poor make 'bad' decisions about food is because they lack information? Do you really think the information they lack is so miniscule it can be provided by a bit of government-funded advertising? Isn't it basically telling the poor to emulate the middle class in their lifestyles? Do you really think the reason people in poor neighbourhoods don't all eat healthy food is that they honestly don't know what's good and bad for them? You don't think that their might be costs, both financial and labour-related, to this lifestyle that provide more barriers than a lack of information?

It seems to me the real reason the Greens support this campaign is less to do with changing people's behaviour and more to do with giving their predominantly well-off voters a warm glow of satisfaction from having their lifestyles validated by government endorsement. It's like telling the poor kids who are struggling to pass exams that they should try to emulate their wealthier, academically successful peers without addressing why they don't.

If you want to talk about the cost of healthy food then the real question is why are we so far removed from the source of our food that multinational shite is distributed more widely than locally grown fruit and veges? This is exactly why the solution to this needs to include discussion of changes to policy.

Wow, discussion of changes to policy! There's a radical idea! It's a good thing we've got the Greens around to propose discussion of changes of policy. What ever did we do before the Greens came onto the scene, when nobody ever discussed changes to policy before?

Seriously, what in your opinion are the barriers to discussing changes of policy to make locally grown food easier to access? (Or even better, barriers to actually changing the policy?)