Young People in 2000 – Food for thought
The Young People in 2000 report, released on Monday (November 12, 2001) by the Schools Health Education Unit (SHEU) details the responses of 42,073 young people between the ages of 10 and 15 to a questionnaire on health-related behaviour. The report highlights a number of concerns relating to children's diet and their attitudes towards food.
Of particular significance is the fact that nearly two thirds of Year 10 females (14-15 years of age) want to lose weight despite only 14 % of them being over-weight and approximately 5% are actually under-weight. Results from the questionnaires also show that a significant number of children are missing meals altogether. Over one fifth of Year 10 females had eaten nothing for breakfast on the day of the survey and of these, 15% had skipped lunch the previous day. For many losing weight again appeared to be the primary motivation for such unhealthy habits.
These findings make troubling reading and indicate that a large number of the young people, particularly females may be developing a dysfunctional relationship with their food. But should we be surprised? Barrages of conflicting nutritional advice and surveys documenting dietary disaster assault our senses on a weekly, if not daily basis.
One such recent survey, a poll commissioned by the Cancer Research Campaign (CRC) and Iceland, released last week, found children's diets are falling short of the 'recommended' levels of fruit and vegetables. These findings were reported in a large number of the UK's newspapers using headlines such as Children at risk from not eating vegetables (Telegraph) and Cancer fears as kids snub fruit and veg (Mirror) to emphasise their point. Such scare tactics are clearly not working and, indeed may lie at the root of young people's food neuroses.
A view long held by SIRC is that over-exposure to food and health messages may result in 'warning-fatigue' where people become increasingly de-sensitised to health-promotion campaigns and eventually pay no attention to them. The SHEU survey illustrates this 'condition' perfectly. A quarter of males from Year 10 never considered health at all when choosing food.
"There are many prompts to think about the food we eat – coverage in the media seems never to have been higher. But with so much publicity about BSE, food poisoning, GM foods, additives and contaminants, let alone health education messages.has 'scare-fatigue' particularly affected the Year 10 males?"
The recent reports from both the CRC and the SHEU show that over-zealous health promotion and media overload can actually have a detrimental effect on health and may in part be responsible for creating a fear of food among young people. It is unlikely that the introduction of prescriptive measures such as the provision of free fruit in schools is likely to tackle this issue effectively, particularly when young people are renowned for rebelling against such establishment tactics. Indeed, it is far more likely to exacerbate the problem. Promoting certain foods while outlawing others, as noted in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition "does not promote moderate patterns of intake and paradoxically may actually promote the very behaviour its use is intended to reduce."
Back in January 1998 an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine (subscription required) accused health professionals of "overstating the dangers of obesity and the redemptive powers of weight loss." Nearly three years on and little appears to have changed. At some stage we must stop devising solutions to problems that we continue to invent.
15 November 2001