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sign petition for eating competence in the schools

Posted by on Jan 12, 2011 in Blog Posts |

With all the craziness around food, parents and colleagues ask, “What can I do?” Here’s a small way you can help. My daughter’s school district is the first in Minnesota to ban treats and second-helpings in a misguided attempt to address child weight concerns.

Please take a moment to read my editorial which appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press 1/5/11 which outlines possible harms, but importantly, a better approach. (addendum-it has come to my attention that the article cannot be accessed online. See below for text of the editorial in red…)

If you wish, add your signature and share on FB or Twitter. I will present the petition Superintendent Silva and the Wellness Committee.

(Also, please note your school district if possible. I’d love to get as many St. Paul parents as possible, but everyone is welcome.) If this goes well, I will explore making a template letter and petition that you all can circulate in your communities as needed. St. Paul may be the first district, but it won’t be the last…

Why I’m Sour on St. Paul Schools’ ‘no sweets’ Policy (Katja Rowell M.D.)

The St. Paul school district’s policy banning “sweet, sticky, fat-laden and salty treats,” and second-helpings is a misguided attempt to deal with obesity. As a family physician and childhood feeding specialist helping families with feeding and weight concerns, I fear this policy will cause more harm than good, and worsen the very problem it aims to address. It doesn’t have to be this hard! I believe there is a good-sense solution– somewhere between this “abstinence only” policy and serving cupcakes all day– that is more likely to help.

The policy has two main aspects that undermine a child’s skills with eating. First, the banning of “treat” foods and labeling them as “bad” or “unhealthy” is likely to have predictable if unintended consequences. When foods are overly-controlled and restricted, the result is keen interest, desire and sneaking. Children then tend to overeat and binge when given the chance. Sadly, girls as young as four report feeling guilt and shame when eating forbidden foods– if the foods are “bad,” and they are eating them, then they must be bad.

Second, with no option for second helpings, schools undermine eating based on internal cues of hunger and fullness, and fail those for whom school is where they are fed most reliably. The policy also points to a fundamental misunderstanding of how children (especially young ones) eat– lots some days, little others. Children are born with the ability to self-regulate intake, meaning they know how much to eat so their bodies can grow in a healthy way.

Restriction and an overemphasis on “healthy” foods, weight as a goal and calorie and fat reduction will likely lead to increased dieting behaviors. Diets fail for 85-95% of adults, and the results are no better in children. Two out of three teen girls are dieting, with the most predictable result being weight gain, and boys are increasingly joining in. In addition, eating disorder diagnoses are up– at ever-younger ages.

St. Paul’s policy is like others that have come before it– large, multimillion-dollar school programs that lowered fat and calories, controlled vending options, increased physical activity, and failed to lower body mass index (BMI.) It’s easier to ban treats and slash fat and calories than address issues like poverty, food insecurity, stress, lack of adequate sleep, lack of basic cooking skills, or dieting and restrictive or neglectful feeding practices that are all associated with weight gain.

Here’s the good news. Schools have an opportunity to support students in learning “eating competence.” Competent eaters have stable and lower BMI, better blood sugar and cholesterol levels and better nutrition, according to author, nutrition and childhood feeding expert Ellyn Satter MS RD, and supporting research.

Competent eaters feel good about eating and enjoy a variety of foods from all the food groups in satisfying amounts. They are more capable with cooking and use of nutrition labels, and provide themselves with regular meals and snacks. They are less likely to engage in disordered eating including dieting and bingeing. Importantly, competent eaters decide how much to eat based on internal cues of hunger and fullness.

How schools can promote eating competence:

• Institute the Division of Responsibility: adults decide what, when, where to serve foods, children decide how much from what is provided. This strategy is endorsed by the American Dietetic Association. Serve a child-sized portion of dessert with the meal– sometimes a cookie, sometimes fruit. Don’t allow seconds on dessert. Allow seconds on foods that are within the budget and filling. Offer a variety of good-tasting foods so kids can choose, and not just ones that are readily accepted, like pizza and mac-n-cheese.  Include carbs, protein and low and higher fat options.

• Be good about timing meals, and beyond first grade, don’t allow mid-morning snacks, to get kids used to the meal habit. Allow kids enough time to eat and tune in to hunger and fullness–  and not in their snow suits! Small children need to be offered food every two to three hours; by grade-school they can wait three to four.

• Teach that all foods have a place in a healthy diet. There are no “good” or “bad” foods.  Emphasize what children can eat, not what they can’t. Enjoy fruits, grains, veggies, meats, and sweets. Get kids involved with growing, cooking, and tasting foods.

• Don’t serve soda in grade schools, and manage vending options in developmentally appropriate ways– a senior in high school needs different choices than a first-grader. Include ‘treats’ and ‘healthy’ foods at special school events and try to serve around meal and snack times. Don’t make the treats a big deal.

• Do not reward and praise, or punish and shame a child based on what or how much they are eating. Do not reward children with foods.

• Allow the opportunity for regular and enjoyable physical activity.

• Limit school activities that interfere with dinner-time, and assign reasonable amounts of homework. Encourage families to help children get adequate sleep.

School officials and administrators care deeply for our children. I hope they will reconsider this initiative with a focus on competence, not avoidance.

Katja Rowell MD is the mother of a child entering a St. Paul school next fall, and a childhood feeding expert and founder of Family Feeding Dynamics.

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