I was a chubby child – so I know what not to say to one

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Eleanor Mills: ‘I worry that even if we manage to police the physical pounds, we run the risk of stuffing our young people’s heads with dangerous notions’ - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph
Eleanor Mills: ‘I worry that even if we manage to police the physical pounds, we run the risk of stuffing our young people’s heads with dangerous notions’ - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

My heart sank when I read that 1,000 kids aged two to eight are about to get ‘diet coaches’ on the NHS. Poor little bleeders! It’s not their fault they’ve been stuffed full of cheap processed food and shoved in front of screens by busy parents during the pandemic. And now the well-meaning but misguided NHS is going to force-feed them diet sheets, weigh-ins and lorry loads of shame. Believe me, it won’t work.

Obesity is one of those intractable problems to which there are no easy answers and in which well-meaning “fixes” can horribly backfire. It’s been the bane of my own existence for 50 years. My parents decided to pursue their own diet coach-style intervention on chubby little me when I was still in infants school. While my peers tucked into fish and chips or shepherd’s pie, I looked balefully at my plastic Tupperware filled with grated carrot and slimy lettuce.

At home, the criticism was constant. One day, a book called Cooking to Make Kids Slim, featuring an unprepossessing fat kid standing on a pair of scales on the cover, appeared in the kitchen. Forty years later, I can still see it and feel the self-disgust it conjured. The book prefaced a wave of strict portion control (which I got round by clearing the table and hoovering up the extras). Luckily my older cousin, who lived with us and took me to school, took pity on me. We had a deal: I’d buy the child-rate tube tickets, she’d buy me sweets with the difference.

The irony is that when I look back at pictures of me as a kid, I wasn’t even fat. Chubby, sure, or rather not just bones and knees like the rest of the skinny Sloanes at St Paul’s Girls’ Preparatory School. But to my parents, I was a cause of shame, my larger size reflecting badly on them.

As I became a teen the pressure to fix me became greater. Home remedies and packed lunches gave way to a diet doctor in Harley Street who gave me a cream-coloured leaflet full of foods I was to AVOID (practically anything I liked eating from pasta to potatoes, sugar to pastry). The nanny who took me dubbed him Dr Slimey, he was a bit handsy and kept saying “super duper”.

Eleanor Mills struggled with her weight when she was young, right, while some of her classmates suffered from anorexia
Eleanor Mills struggled with her weight when she was young, right, while some of her classmates suffered from anorexia

But Dr Slimey did not just issue unfollowable instructions. He also doled out appetite suppression medication, aka amphetamines. From 13 to 17, I took these little blue and yellow pills twice a day to control my hunger. By that time I was at St Paul’s Girls School – a petri dish of mental illness, where many of my classmates were anorexic. The irony of my situation was not lost on me. I suppose what stuck to all of us – too fat or too thin – was that we were not OK as we were.

These experiences have made me wary of interventions around children’s weight. I worry that even if we manage to police the physical pounds, we run the risk of stuffing our young people’s heads with dangerous notions. This week’s statistics show the biggest rise in obesity among primary school children since 2005, while eating disorders increased fourfold in lockdown.

We mustn’t demonise food, we all need to eat to live. Food is fuel, without it we die. Telling kids some foods are “bad” or “harmful”, making them feel bad about what can be driven by genetic make-up, is not the answer.

Dr Nighat Arif, a GP and resident doctor on This Morning and BBC Breakfast, says: “There are three factors which govern our weight – our emotional relationship with food, the volume of food we eat and how much movement we do. Obesity is linked to emotional eating, over-eating, comfort eating, lonely eating. It is not as simple as calories in and calories out, if it was there wouldn’t be a billion-dollar diet industry.”

Jane Ogden, professor of health psychology at the University of Surrey, says Britain’s child obesity crisis was made worse by lockdowns, as screen time went up and limits on snacking went down. “Food is a great pacifier and TV is a great pacifier, and parents were resorting to doing whatever worked – crisps or sweets in front of the TV if necessary to get 20 minutes of peace.” Adults have also coped with the stress of the pandemic with unhealthy behaviours such as comfort eating, which their children will model themselves on, she adds.

So how can we undo our bad habits? Like me, both Ogden and Arif do not think singling children out at school or sending them to diet coaches is the answer. “Children shouldn’t be put on a diet or sent to fat club,” warns Ogden. “All children should be encouraged to eat well and be more active. You don’t need to weigh children – it’s the behaviour that’s important. If your child does have a weight problem, then walk to school, throw them in the garden and get them to run around.”

When it comes to diet, she adds, only buy food you want your child to eat, cook smaller portions and use fruit as snacks. But – crucially: “Don’t make a thing about it.

“If you say, ‘Don’t eat chips because you are fat and they are bad for you’, you’ll just make the child want them more. Health isn’t a good motivator for people. People are motivated by fun and seeing friends – so find something your children enjoy. Give them good, low in sugar foods and show them this is how you eat, and it tastes good and makes you feel good.”

Schoolchildren are often lured to unhealthy food - Getty
Schoolchildren are often lured to unhealthy food - Getty

All the experts say the key is to build a healthy relationship with food and activity from an early age and never make food an issue or demonise it. There are no good or bad foods, just items we shouldn’t eat very regularly.

Ogden warns: “Eating disorders can come from super healthy parents wanting to have super healthy children – but what we want is moderately healthy children. Don’t say things like, ‘Cut that out, it’s bad for you’ – I wouldn’t even talk about these things.”

As the mother of two teenage daughters, I know that for Gen Z, making any comment about anyone’s weight is seen as the height of rudeness. It is a good rule. Once you adopt it, it makes you realise quite how much older generations do it.

Of course, obesity is a serious national problem and we need to slim our kids down, but we won’t do it by fetishising thin-ness and demonising our children’s relationships with food and themselves. We’ll do it by emphasising healthy bodies and how good it feels to be well and fit.

I’ve seen at first hand the misery of feeling fat and not good enough, but also the deathly ravages of anorexia and how it destroys lives. The trick is to steer between these two horrors – and the way to do that is to move more, eat fresh, unprocessed food and not go on about it more than we have to. The best gift we could give the next generation is healthy bodies – and minds.

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