At work and outside of it, everything that I see around me suggests that Britain's attitude towards food is becoming increasingly unhealthy, and it is taking its toll on the next generation.
A quarter of primary school starters are overweight or obese (rising to a third by the time they reach final year). Childhood eating disorders are also on the rise: a third of hospital admissions for eating disorders occur in children and in the last 3 years over 2,100 children were treated for eating disorders.
In such a climate it intrigues me to see a book aimed at 6 to 12year olds called 'Maggie Goes on a Diet'. This book is about a 14 year old girl who goes on a diet and is transformed from being extremely overweight and insecure to a normal sized girl who becomes the school soccer star. Through time, exercise and hard work, Maggie becomes more and more confident and develops a positive self image.
This book has been the subject of much controversy. For example, there are fears that a book with such a title will promote anorexia. In terms of such a book causing anorexia, my personal view is that anorexia is far too complex a condition caused by a variety of factors, including physical, psychological, interpersonal, and social issues, to be merely triggered by a desire to be thin. But the risk of such a book is that it perpetuates the message that if you are thin, everything in life will be okay. The use of the word 'diet' doesn't promote healthy living: it promotes the idea that there is a need to take a quick fix to change your body image. It might make people with an eating disorder see their disorder as a protective factor, and I don't believe that it's the right message to cure obesity either as the term 'diet' implies temporary sacrifice which is unsustainable, rather than a whole new way of healthy living.
But I am inspired by the idea of targeting children so young to start thinking about nutrition. Such an idea is controversial because many will feel that childhood should not be disturbed by such concerns and that worries about healthy eating should be left up to the parents who are cooking for the kids. But clearly the parents aren't listening to messages about healthy eating if a quarter of primary school starters are overweight. This highlights that actually trying to change people's habits of a lifetime is hard and maybe we'd have more success if we address the children rather than the parents. After all, parents learn from children as much as children do from parents, and when it comes to one generation's deep set beliefs being uprooted I can think of no better way than them being shown a better alternative by the next generation. By putting the responsibility onto children we might see a time when they challenge their parents over the nutritional content of a meal, and make informed decisions about what they want to consume when they are out of their parent's sight.
I'm the first to agree that childhood is over all too quickly these days and it's important for childhood to remain a break from the demands of life. But ultimately prevention is better than cure, and given how early in life the obesity epidemic can hit, I see no better option.
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