Should nutrition be higher up the agenda?

Dr Juliet Gray looks at the relationship between school food and health

There is much evidence to suggest that we should be concerned about modern eating behaviour in the context of overall lifestyles and future health, especially for children and young people. According to Public Health England, two thirds of adults aged 16 and above are overweight and one in four people are obese. Most worryingly, data from the National Child Measurement Programme indicate that one in five children in reception are overweight or obese, and by year six this figure has risen to one in three children. The health consequences of being overweight or obese are considerable. Type 2 diabetes is five times more likely in this group compared to individuals of normal weight, and diabetes is directly linked to chronic health issues, including heart disease. Obesity also increases the risk of many common cancers. 

It is less certain how many people suffer from eating disorders in the UK, but we know they are on the increase. The Health and Social Care Information Centre reported an eight percent rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge-eating) in the 12 months to October 2013 and, of course, this represents the tip of the iceberg. Although predominately an issue for girls and women, NHS information centre research suggests that rates for young men are rising and around a quarter of those showing signs of eating disorders are male. There is also worrying evidence of eating disorders in children under 10.

These statistics speak for themselves and action is needed to protect the future health of our children and young people. Our experience suggests that children’s eating behaviour and nutritional intake can improve provided that a whole school approach is applied, with the school head and management team supporting the caterer in delivering the standards and helping to enforce them in all aspects of school food culture, including in the classroom, and by encouraging the involvement of parents. Anyone providing meals for young people, especially those providing meals on a 24/7 basis, as in boarding schools, has a tremendous responsibility to consider the quality of the food served, to ensure that healthy choices are on offer and, above all, to educate the young people in their care to understand the relationship between food and health. 

‘Super Salmon Salad’ photo courtesy of Harrison Catering Services

The widespread participation in sport for children in most independent schools means that  they are more active overall and, at least in the context of boarding, they have more restricted access to the wide range of unhealthy food options that dominate our high streets—although anecdotally it appears that ‘ordering in’ fast food at weekends may occur. Traditionally, the independent school approach has been to give young people food that they enjoy and would be able to have at home—and plenty of it—the idea being that because they are active, they can ‘burn it off’. Although it may be true that the higher activity levels of these young people put them at lower risk of becoming overweight or obese, the provision of food that is unnecessarily high in saturated fats, sugar and salt at each meal will not be beneficial for long-term health, and young people generally need to be eating more vegetables and fruit and more wholegrain cereal foods. Young people also need to understand why this is important, so within the school environment food education needs to take a higher priority than it currently does in most places.

So, if you wish to review your school food culture where might you begin? The government school food standards for state schools, introduced in 2015, provide a reasonable starting point in highlighting the areas of concern, but they are unnecessarily restrictive and slightly unrealistic in some areas, especially in the context of independent schools. However, the most critical and key issue is to encourage and stimulate children’s and young people’s innate interest in food, including introducing them to simple food preparation and cooking techniques. This can be linked to health in age-appropriate ways throughout the school curriculum, whilst working with your caterers to ensure that the food served in the dining room and elsewhere in the school reflects modern, mainstream thinking on nutrition.

Dr Juliet Gray, Company Nutritionist, Harrison Catering Services    


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