We’re right in the middle of the ‘clean’ eating craze, and as I mentioned in last week’s blog, modern eating disorders are presenting more often as an obsession with health rather than thinness. This makes them incredibly difficult to call out, particularly in the early stages – after all, who wants to be the killjoy who accuses someone on a health kick of being potentially unwell?

The no-nonsense British, that’s who. And leading the charge are British boarding schools – who’d have thought!!

An article in May’s Tatler magazine was all about this trend of clean eating in girls’ boarding schools, and how it is acting as a smokescreen for eating disorders. In response, many of the schools are now enacting policies to anticipate and reduce the likelihood of kids spiralling down the rabbit hole of ‘socially acceptable’ eating problems. And there are some really great ideas being actioned!

The headmaster at Wimbeldon high school wrote to parents and explicitly asked them not to talk to their kids about clean eating or cutting out food groups. “She wanted to put a stop to food becoming a ‘moral choice, where there is good and bad food, right and wrong food’”.

At one boarding school, girls who object to school dinners because of concerns about the ingredients or cooking methods are given one on one attention, with the aim of retaining a balanced relationship with all foods. At the same school, the Personal, Social, Health, and Economic (PSHE) curriculum is being re-worked to include critical discussion about clean eating trends. Girls who continue to display an obsession with healthy eating are closely monitored by medical teams and parents.

At another school, girls are explicitly introduced to the catering staff at the beginning of the school year, where all of the foods on offer are discussed. If any of the girls develop concerns about the meals, they again meet with the cooking staff, who chat with them about cooking methods and reinforce the message that all foods and cooking methods can fit.

Students at another school who suddenly announce plans to become vegans or make dramatic dietary changes are met with individually and engage in lengthy discussions about why they want to make such decisions.

One high school appeals to the girls’ intellects to encourage critical thought about the clean eating movement and the weight loss/wellness industry in general. Viewing the trend as an effort to capitalise off women’s low self-esteem is a very effective way to resist and even push back against it.

Another popular practice has been to use older girls to speak with the younger students about the issues facing young people, particularly around food and body.

One of my favourite strategies mentioned in the article was the attention that schools are now paying to their menus: making them so damn delicious that simple food enjoyment can win out over health evangelism!

Of course, all of these innovations are taking place in extremely privileged environments. In very few schools can one simply pop along and talk to the chefs about their cooking methods, and not all students have the benefit of such close monitoring.

But the basic ideas being implemented here can be taken on board in our everyday lives. We can talk to our teens if they suddenly express concern about foods, we can sit them down and have conversations if they’re cutting out food groups, wanting to turn vegan, or talking a lot about clean eating.

The key is for us to start seeing clean eating as a red flag, a source of concern rather than a ‘good thing’. This is where it gets tricky: healthy eating is so highly regarded in diet culture that it slips underneath our radars. Often as parents, we’re just as confused about nutrition information and just as likely as our kids to slip into radical or extreme food behaviours ourselves.

The influence of social media and clean eating Instagram influencers is enormous on our young people, and there’s so much misinformation being spread about food via this medium. It is vital that we continue to have face to face discussions about food, to talk to our kids about all foods belonging, to challenge the wellness gurus and orthorexic influencers and their toxic messages.

Early adolescence and the teen years are critical periods: this is when kids are at their highest risk of developing eating disorders, and any restriction of foods or dieting behaviour is definitely not safe for them during this time.

We can support our kids to survive adolescence without developing disordered eating habits by promoting inclusion of all foods, intuitive eating skills, and encouraging and modeling a relaxed and above all enjoyable relationship with food. We can do this best by modeling it ourselves: by not restricting, cleansing, detoxing or going extreme.

As parents, we can be responsible for bringing a wide variety of foods into the home and encouraging our kids to eat in a health supportive manner without constantly talking about the ‘healthiness’ or ‘goodness’ of the foods. The food can just be there. We can know it’s nutritious, but to talk to our kids about it is not necessary and not helpful!

Growing up is tough, and there are so many important issues to tackle. In the big picture, what we are eating definitely has a place, but it shouldn’t be centre stage.

I’m fully in agreement with the headmaster of the Wimbeldon high school, who said “I just think there needs to be a rallying cry for us all to stop talking like this. There are other things for us to invest our time and energy into worrying about” Bravo!!