I was throwing together a meal for my 11-year-old daughter recently – a jacket potato with tuna and salad, plus the usual lump of butter on the potato. My sister-in-law, who was visiting, immediately turned to my daughter and warned her of the perils of such wanton consumption of fat: “Be careful Katie – that’s where the hidden calories are – that would be a whole day of ‘Syns’ in Slimming World and then you’d be in trouble”.

My immediate reaction was horror at the affront to butter. I’m from Devon and we take our dairy seriously. I get confused when asked in a restaurant if I’d like ice cream or custard with a dessert. You surely mean ice cream and custard, don’t you? Pudding in my house comes with both, plus a good dollop of clotted cream.

Is butter good for you?

The jury is out on how much of a problem butter is. Even individual experts don’t hold the same view from one week to the next. In June this year, many newspapers reported a study announcing butter is harmless. Fast forward to July and the papers quote the same nutritionist saying that butter is best avoided.

It can be very confusing as a parent to know what is best. My view has always been that a bit of what you fancy does you good, within the context of a balanced diet. The UK’s reference intake for saturated fat is 20g, and most of the fat we eat should be unsaturated (from oils, nuts, seeds, avocados and oily fish), so make sure you adjust the amount of butter you eat to make sure that you don’t exceed this target too often.

Body image and gender

Following this dairy-based umbrage, my second thought was to ponder whether this statement would have been made if my child was a boy, rather than a girl? It is, of course, difficult to answer that question accurately, but I’ve certainly heard a good deal of comments directed at prepubescent and pubescent girls along the lines of “watch your figure”, “a minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” and so on. Conversely I don’t hear relatives, male or female, directing similar comments at boys.

I wonder why that might be? Are girls still more esteemed for their looks, relative to other attributes, than boys are? Sadly, I fear so. I think another reason this happens might be because some of us who have naturally ‘filled out a bit’ in middle age feel we’re being helpful by warning the next generation of what’s around the corner!

These comments also seem to be directed at girls of all sizes and levels of fitness. My own daughter is fit as a butcher’s dog – she runs, does karate, eats sensibly and is generally very healthy. I love to cook, and we’ve shared this passion since she was able to stand on a chair and join me. The butter comment took no account of this, nor of its place in her overall diet. But still, it was felt she needed to know to be careful – a rather doom-laden warning from the ‘ghost of menopause future’!

We are living in a time when eating disorders continue to rise, increasing on average 7% a year over the past ten years. 89% of those affected are female and the average age of hospital admissions in girls is 15. Concerns around weight and body image are known to lead to low self-esteem in girls. As they grow into young women and take their place in the world, these body image concerns can’t do anything to support their view of their own worth and, indeed, their right to be treated and paid on equal terms based on their ability and achievements.

Encouraging healthy relationships with food

I believe that we have a real responsibility as mums, aunties and grandmas to engender a balanced, healthy and enjoyable relationship with food that will stay with both girls and boys throughout their lives. We should therefore think very carefully about how we talk to them about food.

Here are three practical ways in which you can set your child on a healthy path:

Healthy behaviour is best instilled by demonstrating the benefits – negative messages around the perils of eating badly are less likely to hit home than positive ones about how great different kinds of food can be and how fit, strong and energetic you feel when you eat a healthy diet.

No-one likes to be told what to do and teenagers are particularly inclined to rebel. Give them choices. Maybe suggest they prepare the family meal once a week, which will set them up with cookery skills for life and help reduce the amount of food they waste.

Show, don’t tell. Lead by example and show just how fit, strong and energetic eating healthy food can make you feel!


About Sam Williams

Sam Williams lives in Hertfordshire with her partner and is a 45-year- old mum and step mum to two daughters, aged 10 and 11. She is an active campaigner for equality and human rights and gets highly excited about food, music, martial arts and pub quizzes. Sam is a founding partner in Barley Communications, which helps clients engage and communicate with their audiences on issues that matter – including health and social care, community, public services and the environment. Her current projects include campaigns around health provision and reducing food waste.