AUSTRALIAN children are facing more pressure than ever over their eating choices and are being shamed for “good” or “bad” foods they consume, leading to a generation of kids who are not being set up for health success and may be more likely to develop eating disorders.
Adults are also bewildered about healthy eating information, adding to the confusion.
Schools are placing too much pressure on ensuring “healthy” options are in lunch boxes and are making children feel inadequate by, in some cases, shaming them for “bad” food options, according to new research by Monash University.
And the Australian Medical Association President Tony Bartone said more children were visiting GPs with food-related anxiety as a result of our narrowed focus on “healthy” eating rather than approaching food with a moderation mindset.
The news comes as News Corp Australia research reveals 41 per cent adults are having trouble navigating the maze of healthy eating information.
And while 62 per cent say health professionals are their most trusted source of information on nutrition, 18.1 per cent trust family the most, 12 per cent trust TV shows the most and 11.8 per cent trust social media above all else.
One in four Australian children is considered overweight or obese and that number will grow if innovative solutions are not employed to better connect kids with food in a positive way, experts say.
JaneMaree Maher, Associate Dean at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences said there was far too much pressure on children over binary “good” or “bad” foods, particularly in the school environment, and it was causing them undue worry.
Dr Maher and colleagues conducted extensive interviews with 50 families as part of a study into how children were feeling about food and the pressure they perceived.
In one example a student was told by teachers she was not able to eat yoghurt-covered sultanas provided in her lunch box because they were “junk food”.
“We found significant judgment and othering about food choices from teachers, parents and children. Food is used as a system of ‘punishment and reward’ rather than engaging with children’s own sense of health,” Dr Maher’s research paper found.
“Children understand what are ‘healthy and unhealthy’ foods, but rarely discuss ‘moderation’ across foods.”
AMA President Tony Bartone said more children were visiting GPs with food-related anxiety and if the current level of pressure on kids continued the next generation would be facing increasing body image disorders.
“Children are experiencing a lot of confusion, uncertainty and worry and it is not uncommon now for GPs to be seeing children with food-related anxiety,” Dr Bartone said.
“Body image pressures are incredibly more prevalent these days.”
Miriam Raliegh of Child Nutrition agreed and said this was a real possibility among our generation of kids.
“The reality is we are probably going to see a heightened generation of food disorders and eating disorders,” Dr Raleigh said.
“There needs to be a big shift in the language that we use and kids should be able to enjoy all sorts of foods without feeling increased pressure.”
Chef and beloved Australian television presenter Anna Gare said it was important the fun was not taken out of food for kids.
“Food should be about enjoyment and we should educate our children about healthy choices but having a treat in moderation is not bad,” she said.
Dennis Yarrington, president of the Australian Primary Principals Association, said schools and teachers were not the bad guys and questioned if the Monash research could be extrapolated to the entire nation.
“I would be concerned that a one-off study is reflective of the practice in all schools,” Mr Yarrington said.
“It’s easy to point blame and judgment but are they coming up with the strategies to assist and I think it is very important to remember teachers and schools are just doing their best to support parents and children.”
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