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7 September 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Fat chance of making kids healthier
There’s no need for the government to micromanage school meals.

by Rob Lyons

The government is reportedly planning to impose strict new standards on school meals. According to the Sunday Times, the education secretary Ruth Kelly will announce the proposals in her speech to the Labour Party conference later this month. Instead of a cafeteria-style system allowing pupils to choose what they want to eat, schools will be forced to provide set menus. Items with more than 10 per cent fat will be banned, including the infamous Turkey Twizzlers, crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks. Other foods will be labelled as rare treats to be offered only once a week, such as chips and processed cheese.

Of course, it's quite sensible to have guidelines on what can be served in school meals. These new rules, however, go much further than that. We're seeing a micromanagement of children's diets, which springs from an overstating of health fears and a dim view of parents.

Obesity is the spectre at the feast. Children have been getting fatter in recent years - and there is a common assumption that this is due to a diet of 'junk food'. It's also assumed that fat kids turn into fat, unhealthy adults. However, there is little evidence to suggest that children are eating more calories than they used to - if anything, the evidence points to them eating fewer than in the past.

The obsession with kids' diet is misplaced. There is no such thing as junk food - by definition, 'food' has nutritional value. In fact, if there is a problem with foods like burgers and chips it is that they are too nutritious - they pack a lot of energy into a small serving. There is a greater range of vitamins, minerals and protein in the average burger than there is in lettuce, cucumber, apple or many other so-called 'good' foods.

Eating nothing but burgers and chips would be dull, and could lead to missing out on important nutrients. But a diet exclusively made up of fruit and salad wouldn't be any better. 'A little bit of everything does you good', as my dear old mother used to say. For the most part, we can safely allow children to eat what they want, save for the occasional teatime battle over eating greens.

While it would be good to give children more interesting and better food at lunchtimes, there is no need for such a high level of intervention. The assumption that lies beneath these rules is that feckless parents can't be trusted to make sure their kids eat well outside of the school dining hall. School dinners were created in part to ensure that children got one square meal a day when their parents were too poor to provide one. Now, it seems that the government thinks that many parents are too stupid or irresponsible to raise their children properly.

Children are encouraged to fret about their percentage of body fat
But if Ruth Kelly's proposals on school meals are unnecessary and implicitly snobbish, they are unlikely to do children any actual harm. The same cannot be said for the government's proposal to introduce 'fat charts', which would be circulated to clinics to show when children were obese for their age, sex and height.

'I think it's a terrible idea', says Dee Dawson of the Rhodes Farm Clinic that treats young people with eating disorders. 'We're not all the same, we're not meant to be the same. It's like measuring everybody and saying that everybody ought to be five-foot-seven, and those who are five foot or six-foot-two have to get in line.' This attempt to push everyone towards a weight norm just creates anxiety. 'Not only are we making people feel guilty, but at a younger and younger age.'

Dawson argues that 'There is an epidemic of binge eating in this country and it stems from people feeling guilty about the way they look and what they eat.' She concludes that rather than obsessing about size or diet, it would be better to give children the opportunity and freedom to exercise more.

While the causes of obesity and eating disorders are complex, the government's proposals are unlikely to help children and may even make matters worse. Blair's government justifies its existence by ever-greater interference into the minutiae of everyday life. They should keep their fingers out of kids' meals.

Read on:

Jamie Oliver's recipe for an unappetising election, by Mick Hume

Hard to swallow, by Rob Lyons

spiked-issue: Obesity

(1) Chips to be rationed on school menus, Sunday Times, 3 September 2005

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