Over-Emphasising Obesity Risks in Schools Could Encourage Eating Disorders

Wednesday 22nd July 2015

Leading child psychiatrist Dr Janet Walsh has warned that placing too much emphasis on obesity risks could unintentionally be encouraging eating disorders in school children.

Dr Walsh said that a noteworthy percentage of school-age individuals identified lessons that focus on healthy eating and weight as a one of their eating disorder triggers.

Recent figures from the government revealed that one in every five girls of primary school age said they had been on a diet and NHS figures show increasing numbers of young people being admitted to hospital due to eating disorders.

Dr Walsh is head of a specialist adolescent and child eating disorder facility at Priority Hospital in Altrincham. She said that young people in particular feel under huge amounts of pressure to excel in exams, gain popularity and look thin. She went on to say that many eating disorder sufferers are extremely competitive in all they do, sadly including their attitudes to weight loss.

She added that limiting what they eat can make a young person feel more in control when other parts of their life seem to be in disorder. It is important to focus on eating three balanced meals a day and regularly taking part in physical exercise, rather than labelling food as ‘bad’ or ‘good’.

B-EAT is an eating disorder charity and has also expressed concern about how public campaigns aimed at tackling obesity in children might send conflicting messages to young children, thus putting them under pressure. Lorna Garner, chief operating officer of B-EAT, said that low self-worth and self-esteem can influence eating disorder development. She added that eating disorders are multi-casual and complex and the volume of information about calorie intake, diets, ‘good or bad’ foods and exercise can add to a child’s insecurities relating to body shape and weight.

The charity encourages positive healthy attitudes towards lifestyle and food rather than only negative messages. This includes healthy attitudes to variety in body size and shape, especially at a time when young people are changing and developing rapidly.

Lorna is concerned that schools are focuses on the words ‘exercise’ and ‘diet’ alone when relating to obesity. She said schools should take care to make sure the messages conveyed to young people are responsible and consistent.

A 16 year old girl being treated for anorexia at Priority Altrincham said that schools focus on not eating too many carbs or too much fat rather than admitting that it’s okay to have a chocolate bar every now and then. A 15 year old female patient said her school wasn’t very helpful as far as she was concerned. They would focus on body size rather than promoting a healthy lifestyle.

Dr Walsh warns that it’s important not to moralise or stigmatise about size. The debate isn’t about being thin or fat and it certainly shouldn’t encourage young people to be thin.

She did, however, say that she is now seeing evidence that schools are getting better at picking up eating disorder signals and communicating their concerns to parents.