Health: Let them eat Jaffa cakes

We may think we know what constitutes a wholesome diet for children, Ann Treneman says, but a doctor who treats young anorexics condemns parents who see raw carrots and a bit of fruit as a healthy snack.

Dr Dee Dawson is a mother of five and an expert on eating disorders who believes that grown-ups do not have a clue about what children should be eating. She says this as often, and as loudly, as possible in the hope that we adults come to our senses. Five minutes into our interview, she had attacked the Government, schools and the medical profession. But then she gets personal and turns to the vexed subject of her children's lunchboxes.

"The rules at my children's school are stupid. They are not allowed to bring Jaffa cakes because they have a bit of chocolate on them," she says. "I send them anyway. They aren't supposed to bring crisps. Why?" Perhaps, I say, because crisps are meant to be bad for you. "No they're not! They're a wonderful form of nutrition. They give energy. The headmistress suggested that they might bring carrots, celery and fruit. I said if my kid wants a break, she wants to eat. If I send carrots and celery, I might as well give her a cardboard box to chew on."

This sounds like a joke but Dr Dawson, the 50-year-old medical director of Rhodes Farm Clinic for anorexic children in North London, does not laugh. But surely, I say, children can only benefit from fresh vegetables? "Of course children have to have salad and fruit and fresh vegetables," she says, "but they have no calories and no nutritional use except for the vitamins. They don't contribute to the child's growth and energy. This is what a child is all about - growing, strong bones, strong teeth, healthy muscles. Kids need so much energy and none of those foods provide any of that. You give a child a carrot stick at break and you may as well give them nothing."

Dee Dawson specialises in making such challenges. Why shouldn't children eat between meals if they are hungry? Why should children worry about fatty foods? Why don't we teach our children that fat is essential to our diets and that some fats are good for you? What is wrong with vending machines in schools? Dr Dawson believes that the answer to each of these questions is obvious if we would just rediscover the common sense that we have lost in our fat-phobic age. And the woman who, before qualifying as a doctor, founded a company devoted to making clothes for those size 16 and over is on a campaign to put things right.

"Parents are confused. Doctors are confused. The Government is confused. Schools are confused," she says. Last month she attacked the Government in a speech to the Girls' Schools Association, criticising advice that children should eat low-fat foods, and a report that suggested tuck shops should close. Her views ended up on the front page. "I was delighted," she says.

Since then the Department of Health has distanced itself from the leaked report that was submitted in the run-up to next year's green paper on public health. "It has no status other than as a document requested," said a spokeswoman who confirmed that there are no nutrition guidelines for children. The Health Education Authority touches on the subject briefly in its booklet "Balance of Good Health" which is full of advice on how to eat less fat. Nor does the Department of Education provide much help. In June it was announced that nutritional standards were to be set for school lunches but there is no progress yet. A spokeswoman said they hadn't yet begun drafting the Healthy Eating Initiative.

The Department of Health added that it was always keen to hear other opinions and urged Dr Dawson to feel free to contribute. Somehow, I don't think she will need much encouragement. "I would like to see the Government prepare a proper resource kit for schools which talks about healthy eating, healthy exercise, about laxative abuse, anorexia and the long term effects of eating disorders," she says. "Schools are interfering in aspects of nutrition that they don't really understand. If they had a pack, then we could all agree to not tell children they should be on a low-fat diet. Lots of teachers think that's a good idea! But it's not for children."

The core of Dr Dawson's philosophy is that most children, left to themselves, do not have eating problems. "Adults eat for comfort and when they are not hungry because they like food. Children tend not to do that. I personally wouldn't restrict my child's calories. I would allow them to find their own level." As long as her children eat three meals a day, she is not worried about snacks. Children become anxious about food because their parents are and she points to the boom-and-bust Christmas and New Year period as evidence. "Dieting has become a national pastime. It's not often that you find someone who says they eat what they like, when they like, and aren't worried."

Many parents, under the impression that all fat is bad and all carrot sticks good, end up depriving their children though Dr Dawson uses a harsher word. "What happens when you starve kids is they become dull and less outgoing. They've lost their joie de vivre. This happens before you see any weight loss. The whole metabolism will drop. A lot of parents are doing that. If their children were eating more they would be living life on a different plane with energy to burn."

No child should be on a diet unless under the care of a doctor, she says, and only 4 per cent of children are considered to be overweight anyway. But 1 to 2 per cent of all school children have anorexia and the two groups are not unrelated. "Some children are hampered by being truly fat and they could do with a bit of help. But it needs to be done carefully, because something like a third of the children at my clinic have been overweight, have gone on diets and just not stopped."

The clinic is in a large house and takes 32 children at a time. When you walk up the drive, you can see into the dining room. It is a sad sign of our times to see so many shrunken children gathered together to learn how to eat. So far 400 children have come here over the years and all arrive weighing 80 per cent of their normal body weight or less (48 per cent was the lowest). Dee shows me a picture of a boy near the lower end of the scale - it is like looking at a victim of famine. "He was absolutely terrified of fat," she says. Her youngest patient was six years old. "She thought that she had fat thighs and her tummy wasn't flat."

But children do not become anorexic just because their mums won't let them eat chips. Anorexia is a disease that strikes a certain type of child (a perfectionist and an obsessive) at a particularly stressful time. The child's life feels out of control and so she controls the one thing she can: her body. (Only 10 per cent of anorexics are boys.) Dee Dawson is saying that we are raising a nation of children who are confused about food and that grown-ups are only making it worse. "Do parents know whether we are supposed to be giving kids skimmed milk or semi-skimmed, butter, chips or crisps? What about chocolate?

So, I ask, it's crisps and chocolate bars all round then? "Not every day," she says. "You've got to be sensible." And for once she sounds just like any other mum.

News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
Ministry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
News
peopleHere's what Stephen Fry would say
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Richard Dawkins is known for his outspoken views
people
Life and Style
L’Auberge du pont de Collonges (AFP)
food + drinkFury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Arts and Entertainment
Bourne's New Adventures dance company worked with 27 young Londoners to devise a curtain-raiser staged before New Adventures' performance of Edward Scissorhands
theatreStar choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links