Most months, if not weeks, newspapers carry stories on Britain’s obesity crisis. Last week in The Times it was reported “Public Health England told brands from Tesco to McDonald’s yesterday to cut calories in sandwiches and ready meals by 20 per cent as it declared that “Britain needs to go on a diet”.
It reiterated the view that reducing children’s exposure to junk food advertising and ending promotional deals on unhealthy products are the two most important measures to fight child obesity” In November it was reported that the UK is the most obese country in western Europe, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
I certainly support the importance of a healthy lifestyle amongst our young people and have no doubt that consuming less fast food would be beneficial. I completely support the recent wave of supermarkets banning the sale of highly caffeinated energy drinks to under 16s and Jamie Oliver’s #NotForChildren Campaign.
However, I fear we are at risk of demonising food, calories, eating and drinking in general. Children are growing, physically, and leading busy, active lives full of sport and exercise; energy output requires energy input.
I don’t mind admitting that at my school we used to offer a piece of fruit to our pupils at break; after all it was the healthy thing to do. However, a catering consultant we employed noted a piece of watermelon, for example, had virtually no calorific content and for my pupils about to play hockey or rugby for an hour before lunch was of no use. Worse still it was probably damaging their ability to perform in their PE and sporting pursuits – my pupils for much of the day were potentially hungry and hungry pupils can’t exercise effectively nor can they learn properly.
Another area where we were getting it wrong was that our younger pupils, in the Prep School, were getting different food as compared to the Senior School pupils. Our consultant noted that in normal families, on an evening or at weekends, the eight-year-old member of family will get the same meal as the 15-year-old in the family so why do it differently in school?
We have now adopted a different approach to food and our catering. We have employed the brilliant Holroyd Howe who believe in the key principles of: “glorious ingredients, balanced nutrition, making food fun, inspiring creativity and exceptional hospitality”.
I’m very proud to say that my pupils are eating more than ever before. They are, however, eating the most wonderful array of dishes, salads, fruits, deserts and smoothies. We have abandoned the "either or" philosophy.
Pupils can self-serve themselves as much as they want and it’s terrific to see our pupils trays with various sliced fruits, salads with all manner of dressings, a desert and a smoothie in addition to their main course.
Our vegetarian and vegan options are just as appealing as the meat or fish dishes; we have all become a bit more flexitarian. The pupils, and their teachers, are now excited about their food. They talk about food over the table, they discuss the menus at break and with their teachers.
Food and nutrition has become part of our educational offering. They seem to have more energy, are even more motivated and certainly have a spring in their step as they walk around the campus. It’s also fuelling conversations – “did you try the x or y” “which salad did you have?” – and we are broadening their horizons just as we do in the classroom, on the stage or on the astro.
Tackling this obesity crisis doesn’t have to be about banning foods and limiting calorie intake. Eating well can be a solution to the nation’s physical as well as mental health if we approach it in a more creative way; I had no idea just how many of my pupils would like kale – nor, I suspect, did they.
A healthy diet combined with exercise helps to keep our brains sharp. In education we are often guilty of jumping from one fad to another to try and improve pupils’ performance – later starts to the school day, various types of technology, different learning styles etc.
Perhaps it may be something as simple as better eating which can have the most transformative effect on our pupils’ academic progress.
Research suggests that regular exercise improves cognitive function and good eating fuels the exercise. As a school we have started to think differently about food and our pupils are better for it.
I hope that everyone from the Government to food outlets might do likewise. Enjoying food more not less is the solution to the nation’s obesity crisis.