Banning Junk Food, Creating Unhealthy Mindsets

James S. Bell Junior Middle School in Toronto has banned “junk food” from lunches. Students who bring items such as candy or even granola bars will be asked to take the items back home. The reasoning behind this decision is that the school styles itself as a “sports and wellness academy”. They further reinforce these values by sending kids back to the cafeteria line if they do not have enough vegetables on their plate. Although the general population may perceive these initiatives as positive and healthy – they do not sit well with me. I believe that they reinforce the idea that junk food is “bad” and doesn’t have a place in a healthy balanced diet. This is not true.

Reading this story reminded me of the rules at the adult eating disorders program at North York General Hospital (NYGH). We would eat dinner together as a group and the highly qualified treatment team (made up of two social workers, a psychologist, and a nutritionist) would inspect our meals to see if they were nutritionally balanced – and believe it or not, it was mandatory that our dinners always included a serving of dessert. I was shocked and upset when I was first asked to eat a chocolate bar with dinner as I firmly believed that it didn’t fall within the confines a healthy diet. However, through treatment, I finally learned what truly constitutes a healthy balanced diet (hint: the key word is balanced). Although junk foods may contain high levels of fat and sugar and are not nutritious per se, eating a measured serving/portion once in a while is healthy. Especially at a school where children are doing 2.5 hours of physical activity a day! Surviving on “healthy” foods alone is not a positive attitude towards eating.

Labelling foods as good and bad for children in grades 1 to 9 will only serve to create negative attitudes towards physical health and wellness. It also creates an aura and mystique around “bad” foods and will likely lead to children sneaking and bingeing on junk food. With secretive eating also comes a feeling of shame – an undesirable side-effect since children are emotionally vulnerable and still developing their core self-esteem and body image. It is positive if children are asked to eat the correct serving of vegetables with their meal, but if they are encouraged to fill up on extra vegetables because they are hungry and not allowed to eat bread – then that is not healthy. It’s dangerous to put so much emphasis on “good” foods at a time when children are still physically growing (eating disorders are known to cause stunted growth). It’s important that children have a healthy mindset.

My recommendation to the school would be to encourage students to have healthier attitudes towards junk food i.e. rather than ban it outright and brand it as a “forbidden fruit”, encourage its consumption in proper servings/portion sizes so that treats are viewed as an ordinary “sometimes” food. At the hospital we didn’t even call it junk food; rather we used the term “high energy food” (which sounds a lot more positive). Creating positive eating attitudes in our youth will help them grow into strong, healthy, and energetic adults and may help mitigate the growth of eating disorders.

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Priyanka Parshad started volunteering with NEDIC in February 2012 after she recovered from an eating disorder. She first assisted as a social media editor and now facilitates outreach workshops whenever her schedule permits. To read more blogs by Priyanka, visit her site where she writes about self esteem, body image, mental wellness, and physical health. Twitter @PriyankaParshad