We had dinner with friends recently – the proud parents of 11 and 13 year old boys. Mum could not wait to share her outrage that she was being ‘told off’ by school staff for not putting bread or snacks in the boys’ lunch boxes.
Both boys are the picture of health. They have grown up eating real food. They don’t want bread or sugary cereal bars. They want Parma ham, goat’s cheese and olives. They’re OK with berries and cream, but would choose meat over fruit any day. The only issue I see with this diet is expense and expectations. Developing a penchant for fillet steak and scallops, before reaching teenage, comes at a purse cost and sets the boys up for a shock when they leave home and pay their own bills.
Our mum friend also shared that her 11 year old had just done ‘cooking’ at school. He was asked to take in a pre-made flan base, a tin of custard and a tin of pineapple rings – they were going to ‘make’ a flan. I tweeted this and Twitter came back full of similar stories – bring in a jar of pasta sauce as we’re ‘making’ pasta tomorrow. Bring in some chopped chicken pieces and a jar of curry sauce, as we’re ‘making’ curry. One mum said on twitter that they should be called “stirring” lessons, not cooking lessons!
I was chatting to a GP about this, who was similarly alarmed by the appalling messages being given to young people that she is having to counter in her work with children. Following our conversation, I looked into how it could be that school staff felt that they had such a mandate to impose dietary advice. It turned out to be a very interesting exploration and a huge thanks to Jon Ungoed Thomas at The Sunday Times and Justin Stoneman for their investigation leading to this article on Sunday 24th May 2015.
The ‘eatwell’ plate
The ‘eatwell’ plate (what I call the eatbadly plate) was launched at a press release on Sunday 16 September 2007. It is described in the British Nutrition Foundation video on YouTube as the “healthy eating model for the UK” – suitable for young or old, vegetarian or not and for any ethnic group. We’ll come to the British Nutrition Foundation soon.
It replaced The Balance of Good Health, which was launched by the UK Department of Health in 1994 and was also a picture of a segmented plate. In April 2000, responsibility for the Balance of Good Health (BOGH) diagram and concept passed to the newly formed Food Standards Agency. The FSA web site details the differences between the two plates. The BOGH title was seen as “unfriendly” and “lacking in emotion” and so the title and some colours on the plate rim changed. Food groups were renamed. For example “bread, other cereals and potatoes” became “bread, rice, potatoes, pasta (and other starchy foods)”. May I suggest that a marketing company made a lot of money making the plate more “friendly” and “emotional”, but, to all intents and purposes, what we know as the ‘eatwell’ plate has been around since 1994.
Everything starts with this plate. The link to the NHS web site confirms that the plate “doesn’t apply to children under the age of two” but, “Between the ages of two and five, children should gradually move to eating the same foods as the rest of the family, in the proportions shown on the eatwell plate…” From the age of two, therefore, the eatbadly plate is the role model for healthy eating.
If you look at the detailed advice offered, you can see that the carbohydrate dominant advice starts from the minute babies put anything other than breast milk or formula in their mouths. From six months, first foods are advised to be “mashed or soft cooked fruit and vegetables like parsnip, potato, yam, sweet potato, carrot, apple or pear… Or soft fruit like peach, melon, soft ripe banana or avocado … Or baby rice or baby cereal mixed with your baby’s usual milk.” Carbs, carbs, carbs, carbs and more carbs.
The advice at 8-9 months looks remarkably like the eatbadly plate: “Your baby’s diet should consist of a variety of the following types of food: fruit and vegetables; bread, rice, pasta, potatoes and other starchy foods; meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non dairy sources of protein and milk and dairy products.” Only the junk segment is not mentioned – Mars Bars can come later eh I guess.
Parents have also contacted me to say – not only are they incensed by school staff telling them how to feed their own children, they get pretty furious when their little ones come home full of news about this plate – having been taught about it at school. One even said “Mummy – you’re wrong – we should be having pasta for tea.”
How has this plate become embedded in our children’s education?
The national curriculum
The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) worked with the Food Standard Agency (FSA) – before the FSA was relieved of its food advice duties – to embed the eatbadly plate in the national curriculum. As this web site informs us, in 2007, the FSA and BNF launched Core Food Competences for children aged 5-16 years.
The site further tells us that the BNF initiated a review of the original framework – along with Public Health England (PHE), FSA Northern Ireland, FSA Scotland and the Welsh Government. The updated framework can be seen here.
The core competencies are set out as follows:
“By the age of 7, children should:… be aware that we all need a balanced and varied diet to grow, be active and maintain health, and that we need to eat more of some foods than others, e.g. as depicted in the eatwell plate.”
“By the age of 11, children should: … make food choices based on the current healthy eating advice and understand that a healthy diet is made up from a variety and balance of different food and drinks, as depicted in the eatwell plate.”
“By the age of 14, children should: … use current healthy eating advice to choose a varied balanced diet for their needs and those of others.” [my note – presumably we no longer need to reference the eatbadly plate – it would be so ingrained by now.]
“By the age of 16, children should: … be able to apply current healthy eating recommendations, and understanding of people’s needs, to their own diet and those of others, e.g. before and during pregnancy, breastfeeding.” [my note – remember – the eatbadly plate is for everyone for every life stage.]
The British Nutrition Foundation
When I do presentations about conflicts of interest, the slide that gets the biggest gasps is the British Nutrition Foundation list of members. Here it is:
The members of the British Nutrition Foundation are the who’s who of the fake food and drink world from Tate & Lyle to Coca-Cola with everything from Weetabix to McCain (oven chips) in-between. Most of the major UK grocery retailers are also members – even M&S, but then they are one of the worst for placing sweets at child eye level at checkouts, so we shouldn’t be surprised.
The BNF initiates a review of the school nutrition core competencies and these are the organisations behind the BNF. That’s why the Sunday Times headline “Pupils taught cola is part of a healthy diet” now makes sense.
The BNF members and the eatbadly plate
The fake food companies just love the plate. Sugary cereal is prominently featured. Junk food has its own entire segment – only supposed to be 8% by weight/space on the plate – but that ends up being 22% of daily energy intake. Don’t worry about the fruit and veg a) we can promote baked beans as one of your five a day and b) all that volume only ends up being 6% of daily energy intake. 50% of dietary intake ends up being cereals, bread, etc – no wonder Kelloggs, General Mills, Weetabix, Greggs and Warburtons are right behind it. Real food barely gets a look in – nothing much on this plate to support farmers or fishers.
You should know that your healthy eating plate is anything but when it is featured on junk food web sites:
Nestlé want you to “Use the Eatwell plate to help you choose the right foods and proportions”.
Walkers are keen to show you how “The Government’s Healthy Eating guide, The Eatwell Plate, shows how snack foods can be part of an overall balanced diet”.
United Biscuits and the Institute of Grocery have a case study to show how “The healthy eating messages collated within the Best practice guide, such as the Eatwell Plate, are used in UB’s in-house Health and Nutrition training for employees as well as on their 123healthybalance.com website”.
Kellogg’s want to make sure pregnancy features plenty of their products, as supported by the ‘eatwell’ plate.
And Sainsbury’s are only too happy to promote the ‘eatwell’ plate‘.
So parents, next time your pride and joys come home raving about bread and cereals, you may want to educate them about which foods really are the most nutritious and then give them a lesson about conflicts of interest. Clearly, this is something they need to know about from the age of 5.