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It's Time Schools Stopped Policing Our Kids' Lunches

Publicly humiliating a kid for food choices sounds terrible and unethical. So how and why is it permitted in our institutions?

Co-written with Naureen Hunani, RD

The school year has been underway for almost two months. How are you coping with school lunches and snacks? If you are feeling stressed, frustrated and overwhelmed by the food rules, you are not alone. I am not talking about banned foods due to life-threatening food allergies, but so-called "healthy" food rules.

As a non-diet, weight-neutral dietitian and intuitive eating advocate, I am irritated daily by food-fearing messages on the TV, in magazines and on social media. The thought that vulnerable, impressionable children are subjected to these harmful messages at school through food rules enrages me. As a mom, it scares me for my own children as well as yours.

I reached out to a fellow non-diet dietitian who is experiencing the school system with her child, for the first time. Naureen Hunani is not only a dietitian but specializes in family and pediatric nutrition.

Food shaming should be banned

There seems to be an important rise in food shaming in schools. Naureen recounts that in the last few months, she has encountered countless parents who have reported their children being "food lectured" by school authorities during lunch and snack times. "Food shaming" and "food policing" seems to be a very common phenomenon these days and can take many forms. Making negative comments about the content of a child's lunchbox, asking kids to eat their food in the hallway and removing them from their natural eating environment as a punishment, or taking away food from a student's hands because it is considered to be "unhealthy" are all prime examples of food shaming. Publicly humiliating a kid for food choices that may or may not be under his control sounds terrible and unethical. So how and why is it permitted in our institutions?

Health is so much more complex than a number on a scale.

Childhood obesity and how it relates to food shaming

Our efforts to slim down our kids have lead to some very unhealthy practices. Many institutions have implement unpractical and unethical food policies that are causing more harm than good. The obsession of raising slim children comes at a cost and impacts their mental and emotional well-being.

Eating disorders in children, something we hardly talk about, are also on the rise. "Treating obesity" and disordered eating go hand in hand. Eating disorders can be a side effect of dieting and weight control measures. It appears that most forbidden foods in schools contain sugar and fat likely due to the fact that they've been falsely accused to be the culprit of childhood obesity. Teaching kids to fear "bad" foods will not make them any healthier, but it will open the door to more complicated health issues: disordered eating.

We don't have full control over our weight and the theory that fat kids eat more and move less has been debunked. Genetics play a much bigger role in how our bodies are shaped than food intake and exercise, yet we still impose strategies and policies for weight loss. We know that weight is not a good predictor of health. Not all fat kids are unhealthy and not all lean kids are healthy. Health is so much more complex than a number on a scale.

Not all children have equal access to food

We live in a country where one in five children live in poverty. Eating foods that are considered "healthy" is not an option for many Canadian families. Food insecurity is real and impacts the lives of many children. In 2016, eight out of 10 provinces noted an increase in food bank usage and more than one-third of food bank users across Canada were children. Not having equal access to food and living in poverty has far greater impact on health than a chocolate chip granola bar (a food that is commonly banned in classrooms). It is time we look at the bigger picture and stop blaming food for our children's "poor health."

Labelling foods as "good" or "bad" is unhelpful

How a food winds up with a "good" or "bad" label is highly subjective and usually arbitrary. For every nutrient or food on earth, there is a website or guru who is against it: gluten, soy, fructose, saturated fat, dairy, fruit, etc. This black and white way of thinking about food is flawed and unhealthy — for both the mind and the body. Two studies demonstrate examples of this. Firstly, we tend to think of forbidden foods more often (i.e. become preoccupied with them), even if we don't like the food! Secondly, some studies have even shown that children will eat more of a food if it is labeled as off-limits.

Labelling foods as "bad" lead to good-intentioned policymakers to restrict them in places like schools. However, restriction of "bad" foods usually leads to binging or overeating those foods followed by guilt or shame. None of these reactions lead to greater health.

If you feel that the "healthy" food rules at your school have gone too far, know that you are not alone.

What about the picky eaters?

These children may have a very limited number of foods they are able to eat (which usually can improve with feeding therapy) and are not just "being difficult" as they've been labeled in the past. This often leaves parents deeply stressed about what to put into lunchboxes once these accepted foods are combined with school and classroom food rules. Many children who are extremely picky eaters already struggle with malnutrition or under-eating. Limiting further what they are allowed to eat during the day puts them further at risk. To learn more about ARFID and picky eating, check this out.

Speak out in defense of the health of your children

If you feel that the "healthy" food rules at your school have gone too far, know that you are not alone. Speaking out against these unhealthy rules does not make you a difficult parent! It makes you an advocate for your child's mental and physical health.

Naureen Hunani is a dietitian who has been helping families overcome nutritional challenges for over a decade.

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