Schools urged to tread with caution over anti-obesity messages

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A leading psychiatrist in the UK has urged schools to refrain from over-emphasising anti-obesity messages as the strategy could backfire and promote eating disorders among kids.

Dr Janet Walsh, head of specialist child and adolescent eating disorders unit at Priory Hospital in Altrincham, Cheshire, believes that anti-obesity messages displayed and conveyed at school are one of the most common triggers of eating disorders in children.

Walsh has called upon schools to focus on messages that promote the need for eating a balanced diet with three meals a day and regular exercise rather than labelling the food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

The UK’s leading eating disorders charity B-eat also expressed concern that public campaigns to tackle childhood obesity were sending conflicting and pressure-laden messages to young people. According to charity’s Lorna Garner low self-esteem and self-worth can be an influencing factor in the development of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are not simple to understand and with their complex and multi-causal nature, there are a range of factors that play a role and with children being constantly bombarded with messages about obesity, the information about diets, calorie intake and ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, along with exercise, can add to the insecurities in child about their weight.

Experts have suggests that attitudes towards food and lifestyle should be positive rather than negative and this includes attitudes to variety in shape and size of bodies, particularly at a time when young people’s bodies are developing and changing rapidly.

Dr Walsh said: “It is important not to stigmatise, and moralise, about size. The debate is not about being fat or thin and certainly not about encouraging girls to be thin.

However Dr Walsh said she was seeing evidence that schools were getting better at spotting the signs of eating disorders, and communicating their concerns to parents.

“It is quite often a concerned phone call from school to a parent that has triggered the young person and their parents to seek professional help,” she said. Her comments come after recent Government figures revealed that one in five primary school-age girls said they had been on a diet.

Dr Walsh also called upon parents to look out for signs that indicate under-eating and act swiftly if they notice their child consistently going without food, making repeated claims they have already eaten, constantly checking the calories in food, or becoming highly selective in the foods that they will eat.

“Don’t be afraid to be open with your son or daughter about your concerns, and even if, initially, they deny that there is anything wrong, keep a close watch on the situation and talk again if you still feel that things aren’t right”, Dr Walsh added.