12th August is International Youth Day. A day to think about celebrating, investing in and securing the future of our young people. We owe them the best mental and physical health we can give them to live long and happy lives. This includes empowering them to takeover responsibility for their selfcare once they leave home, with the right attitudes and education to keep them safe and well.
Imagine my disbelief therefore, when I read a tweet from Jeremy Vine communicating that the National Obesity Forum wants children who have gained weight during lockdown, to undergo weigh-ins when they return to school; one when they go back in September and one later in the spring to 'keep them on track'.
What these so called health-experts appear not to realise is how damaging instilling this kind of dieting mentality in these young people will be. Are they going to be drawn into comparing their weight with others and if so, what kind of bullying might that induce? Will it be like a playground version of a Slimming World weigh-in with rewards, incentives and (dare I say) shame. if they are upset by lack of progress when compared with others, will they be more drawn to emotional eating that they might have been in the first place? Who will they talk to? Will anyone be available to talk about their emotional well-being during this process? How many will start to link their weight to their self-worth and spend a lifetime yo-yoing in and out of diets in a pattern of disordered eating? How many will take it to an extreme and add to the already alarming statistics for anorexia in teenagers? It is beyond me why the statistics about dieting and eating disorders do not speak for themselves.
Having any kind of time or calorie target is rife with issues. You either succeed or fail (in the case of calorie counting that can be on a daily basis) and as any serial dieter will know (my hand is up here), success can create complacency and a return to old habits, failure can create low morale with exactly the same result. Restrictive eating causes overeating - fact!
I accept that there are serious health issues with obesity but it's not that simple. We know that BMI can be deeply flawed as a tool to indicate a healthy weight so why is this antiquated attitude to weight having a causal relationship to health still being promoted? Maybe there is a wider health check being suggested as part of this proposed initiative in which case please comment if you know more.
What also worries me is that many children do not have control over what they are fed at home. For many there may not be the support necessary to achieve a weight loss goal set by school and this could cause that young person additional stress. Or look at the other extreme - the parents may get some kind of competitive kick out of it and put additional pressure on the child. This situation could bring about at best some comfort eating or at worst self-harm and isolation.
Surely, health experts should be working with schools to educate children why an holistic healthy diet and lifestyle is important and, as importantly how to achieve it. Teaching them to cook and savour new foods, incentivising movement (and not just on the competitive athletics field); encouraging a more mindful approach that, with subtle changes, will slowly encourage the individual's body to find its natural weight in a natural way. Why is there so little on the curriculum or support for parents in educating health - are we so fixated on academic results that health is not a responsibility of schools and colleges (where children and young people spend most of their time).
Parents should also be supported to understand the benefits of sound nutrition, listening to hunger and portion management plus the negative effects of sugar, stimulants and fat - but from a health, not a weight/fat stigma perspective.
We must start with education, gentle positive incentive and the ability for everyone, including people on low budgets to have access to nutritious food. I'm not in government, it's not for me to suggest how, but at the very least could we have a focus on basic nutrition (like 5 a day) and making exercise fun. Anyway, there must be far more intelligent people than me who could work out how to implement something more constructive and self-esteem building. (Maybe the restriction of junk food ads recently mooted may help.)
The only way forward is education and a return to an intuitive way of eating without stigma or reference. A way which inspires and empowers the youth or today and the adults of tomorrow to own and love their bodies, to look after them; to NOT be put on a diet..
Here is a link to an article about the programme.