Imagine a 13-year-old girl monitoring every bite she eats and writing it in a journal. She calculates calories, counts macronutrients in grams, and determines how much less she should eat to meet a specific weight loss goal.
Or is she just doing her health class homework?
nutritional tasks in school
Food diaries are common nutritional tasks that pose a health risk to children. It’s a pattern familiar to anyone who treats adolescents with eating disorders: a well-intentioned nutrition lesson triggers an unhealthy relationship with food that morphs into mental illness. Even students who will never develop an eating disorder can be harmed when nutrition is reduced to a mathematical equation with a side of body shame. With the current adolescent mental health crisis, schools and families must grapple with how well-intentioned curricula can backfire.
As mothers, educators, and professionals who focus on young people’s relationship with food and their bodies, we see the damage done by these types of nutritional tasks. Combining a 25-year research career studying body image and eating (CM) with treating adolescent eating disorders (OH) in the trenches, we’ve encountered countless stories of academic lessons gone awry. When schools encourage young people to count calories or feel insecure about their weight, it’s no surprise that students show anxiety about food and new or worsening physical dissatisfaction. And when that happens, the threat to mental and physical well-being cannot be overstated. No teacher or parent wants a parenting practice to harm a child’s health.
Encouraging people to “eat healthier” can backfire
While a single class may not be the sole cause of a young person’s mental health collapse, we’ve both seen first-hand how much damage these assignments can do. And this harmful effect has become more and more common since children started learning to classify foods as “good” and “bad” in kindergarten. Too often, a food journal or meal planning activity in middle or high school can be the final straw that triggers an eating disorder.
Attempting to “eat healthier” according to a nutrition lesson can end up leading to food monitoring, anxiety about eating, and dieting, which is the single largest risk factor for developing an eating disorder. Every meal can become something to quantify, judge, question and be ashamed of. This type of obsessive thinking about food can affect mood, focus, and relationships.
Nutrition messages are compounding the existing youth mental health crisis
Of course, school isn’t the only place where children learn to think about “proper” nutrition. Young people are being inundated with advertisements, influencer videos and social media images encouraging them to follow a certain type of diet and slim appearance. While it’s tempting to blame TikTok, we need to take a closer look at how these harmful messages are being reinforced by parents, guardians, and teachers.
Educators are already acutely aware of the youth mental health crisis that has emerged in the wake of the pandemic. The latest report from the US Surgeon General shows that rates of anxiety and depression among adolescents have doubled in the first year of the pandemic, with 1 in 4 suffering from depression and 1 in 5 suffering from anxiety. These mood disorders often coexist with eating disorders, which have also increased during the pandemic. Research indicates a significant increase in hospital admissions and requests for treatment for eating disorders. And contrary to popular myth, eating disorders don’t just affect teenage girls; Children of all ages and genders are at risk.
What parents and teachers need to know
If you’re concerned that your child has been asked to complete a school assignment, it may be turn of health aren’t helping, it’s usually best to check with your child’s teacher first. Explain that the assignment, while well intentioned—and perhaps part of the state mandated curriculum—can increase anxiety about diet and health. Fortunately, the Alliance for Eating Disorders and Sunny Side Up Nutrition have written materials to share with educators that provide information and research on concerns about school nutrition assignments.
A health-friendly approach to nutrition education doesn’t mean doing away with the classroom altogether, but rather ensuring that the focus is on adequate nutrition and enjoyment, not nutrient tracking, BMI calculations, and fear mongering. What if school nutrition education focused less on easily quantifiable aspects of ingredients and more on enjoying the food? What if schools stopped reducing food to facts and numbers and instead taught students how to make simple, nutritious, and delicious meals?
We’d rather our kids – and all kids – learn to make their own dinners than count carb grams and worry about their weight. We’d rather teach them that there’s so much more to food than what can be put on a nutrition label. More than ever, vulnerable young people need to feel safe and supported in their food choices, not scared and judged. Eating disorder development should not be on the curriculum this school year.