I’ve been thinking about the number of very public “health experts” that have been advocating total elimination of certain foods or food groups from the diet, either from the diets of children, or from those of fat adults.
There have been plenty over the years, but we’re seeing a rash of them here in Australia at the moment. The most recent of which was Dr Kerryn Phelps, via her Twitter account. Dr Samantha Thomas opened up a conversation about it on her blog, The Discourse, over the weekend.
I have also seen it from Michelle Bridges, physical trainer with The Australian Biggest Loser, who talks of guilt over eating “one or two chips”, and decries the consumption of white bread, a sentiment echoed by “non profit organisation” Obesity Prevention Australia. Not that long ago I heard nutritionist Rosemary Stanton on the radio criticising the companies who make packet cake mixes for having photographs of children on the box, because she believes it sends the message to children that it’s OK to eat cake. Uh-huh, you read correctly.
There have been others as well.
I want to talk about this method of “healthy eating” that advocates the complete elimination of foods because they are considered “junk”. Junk food seems to be a fairly fuzzy concept in a lot of these cases, and can mean anything from highly processed foods with lots of added artificial ingredients, to anything containing sugar or fat, anything purchased from take-away vendors (prepared, cooked and/or served for you) to any kind of “bad” foodstuffs of the moment – these days, mostly carbohydrates.
These total elimination methods of supposed healthy eating seem to always be aimed at either children or fat adults. It is rare to seem them recommended for all of society to practice.
It deeply concerns me to see these kinds of diets advocated for children and fat people, for anyone really.
The first thing that disturbs me is how disordered a behaviour it seems. The connotations of fear, guilt, sin, bad behaviour, evil etc are all methods I know I employed myself while deeply entrenched in an eating disorder. The idea that certain foods should never be eaten because they are fattening really bothers me. Of course there will always be things like allergies and intolerances that will mean someone is unable to eat certain foods, not to mention simple dislikes, but the idea that a foodstuff should never pass someone’s lips because it is bad/junk/unhealthy is worrying, and particularly in children where variety is often an issue, and growing bodies have much broader nutritional needs.
Not to mention that it is simply impractical in our lives today to be hyper vigilant and attempt to completely eliminate the foods considered junk from most people’s eating. The people like Phelps/Bridges/Stanton et al are proposing that children/fat people never be allowed to eat any of these foods. That is certainly what is implied at least.
I was thinking about our eating history as a culture (and I’m speaking very generally as a white western person, as that is my personal experience – and most likely that of Phelps/Bridges/Stanton etc) and the social implications of total elimination of these foods. Are these supposed health experts suggesting that a) children and fat people should never eat and b) that they themselves never eat or feed/have fed their children, any of the following:
- Birthday cake, wedding cake, Christmas cake, or any other celebratory cake.
- If they are Christians – no fish and chips on Fridays.
- No birthday parties for children. Either home catered or those hosted by fast food restaurants.
- No cakes, biscuits or sweets made by their Mum, Gran, or any other loving family member (none for lunch boxes, none for special occasions, none for visitors)
- No teenage parties or hanging out. No pizza, chips, lollies, soft drinks, burgers etc EVER.
- No food at the cinema. No choc tops or popcorn.
- No chocolate, hot cross buns or marshmallows at Easter.
- No school dances (soft drink usually, sometimes snacks like chips)
- No pie or hot-dog at the football/cricket/other sporting event.
- No convenience food (pre or partially-pre made, or frozen, or take-away) for busy times.
These are just a few that have popped into my mind as I write this. So if these supposed health experts are advocating that parents of children and fat people eliminate these things from their diet, can they say they’ve practiced what they preached themselves? Particularly those that pride themselves on being thin, or having thin children? Did they eliminate those things from their children’s diet? What about when they were children themselves – did their parents eliminate those things from their diet? Or are they only proposing that other people, particularly fat people and the parents of fat children, operate under such a strict regime?
But what really bothers me about this approach to “healthy eating” is that it is so steeped in control and punishment. Particularly when it is solely applied to children and fat adults. There is a sense of belief that every single morsel consumed by children and fat people should be controlled, sanctioned or approved. It’s someowhat understandable to want to apply this thinking to children, because it is perceived that left to their own devices, children don’t have the skills to make reasonable eating choices yet. I would dispute this however, most kids, when TRULY left to their own devices, tend to balance choices out if given plenty of options. But it is particularly insulting to fat people. It infantilises us, reduces us to being incompetent in making our own decisions in eating and food.
Fat people are seen as so incapable of making responsible food/eating choices that someone needs to intervene. That we require policing in our food choices. It also has an element of punishment. “You have let yourself get so fat, you don’t deserve treats like everyone else.” That fat people are bad/naughty/sinful so they don’t deserve anything “good”.
This moralising of fatness and food suggests to me that fat adults do not have the right or indeed capability of making decisions as to what they eat. It makes our bodies and our lives public – when they are indeed private. What an adult eats or does with their body is their own business and nobody else’s.
All in all, I think it’s high time that supposed health experts like the aforementioned stopped meddling directly in people’s lives and started focusing on real health issues, like adequate and affordable fresh foods for ALL, not just those of higher incomes, as well as safe and encouraging environments for physical activity for ALL, not just those who have the money or who look thin enough to be seen being active in public without offending bigoted people’s eyes.
Perhaps if they focused on these issues, they might actually make some real difference in public health, instead of simply moralising other people’s bodies.