School can be stressful and challenging for many young people, and, in some cases, school-related activities can trigger an eating disorder. Nearly 15 percent of the patients at the inpatient eating disorders treatment program for children and adolescents at Rogers Memorial Hospital trace triggers for their eating disorders to school programming.
Much of the conversation around nutrition in schools and health and wellness classes centers on “good foods vs. bad foods,” teaching kids how to read food labels and count calories, and the “destructive nature” of unhealthy foods. Some nutrition classes also use gross-out tactics (like visceral demonstrations of globs of fat) to scare children into healthy eating.
The problem lies not in the need to educate children about nutrition, but that this education is not simultaneously delivered alongside body-image awareness. It’s possible to teach nutrition in a body-positive way; nutritional education is a large part of all of the eating disorders treatment programs at Rogers. Scaring kids, making strong generalizations about health and nutrition, focusing as body images and stereotypes all pile pressure on kids to approach food and nutrition in unhealthy ways.
The good news is that there are some easy ways to continue the educational conversations about nutrition in ways that reduce the risk of pressuring kids into making unhealthy choices. Rogers recommendations include:
- Avoid scare tactics – Teach kids about food variety, moderation, making smart choices, and promote a healthy lifestyle following the nutritional guidelines and age appropriate exercise.
- Teach parents as well – Parents are in charge of grocery shopping, meal planning, and cooking, and ultimately responsible for a child’s nutritional experience, they need to be on the same page as their children when it comes to nutrition.
- Avoid sweeping generalizations – Be mindful of your word choices and developmental level of your students. If you tell five-year-olds that eating red meat will make them have a heart attack – they may take this as truth and likely be fearful of that food for themselves and family members.
- Remain body positive – Avoid comments about body weight, shape, and size when describing nutrition. Proper nutrition is about so much more than weight and shape and size. Instead, focus on overall wellness as a goal.
As our nation becomes increasingly concerned with obesity, the desire to improve children’s nutritional habits is understandable. However, as we are attempting to help combat obesity we must simultaneously be aware of the possibility that how we present this information can trigger disordered eating in children and adolescents.
The inpatient eating disorders treatment program for children and adolescents at Rogers Memorial Hospital was developed by Tracey L. Cornella-Carlson MD and Theodore E. Weltzin, MD, FAED along with a treatment team with unprecedented experience treating eating disorders in young people.