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The Important Role School Staff Have in Encouraging a Healthy Relationship with Food and Body Image

By: Christina Scalese, RDN, LD, RYT

A recently published article in The New York Times addressed parents’ increasing concerns over what their children are learning from school in regard to body image, weight and nutrition. Assignments that require children to track their calories, or calculate their BMI, can have unintended consequences. Casual comments made by school staff that label foods or dietary habits may be sending the wrong message to impressionable youth.

Adults in a child’s life, including those in the school environment, have a great impact on shaping young minds. This includes how children think about and view food, and the subsequent impact on their body image. Children are starting to become more aware of body size and dieting as young as 5 and 6 years old. (Hayes & Tantleff-Dunn, 2010).

Media, peers, family, teachers, school staff and coaches can all influence a child’s body image. From a young age,

children are often exposed to negative messaging related to achieving an ideal body type. Being taught how to diet, count calories, control their weight, or categorize any food (ie. vegetables are good, but desserts are bad), can cause a great deal of shame, guilt and anxiety for impressionable youth. These behaviors can negatively impact their relationship with food as adults.

Children are born intuitive eaters, which means that they inherently know how to follow physical hunger and satiety cues to guide when, what, and how much to eat. This is demonstrated as an infant cries when hungry and then turns his or her head away when satisfied. Unfortunately, as children get older, conditions can disrupt this natural instinct we are all born with. Being encouraged to eat a certain way, in order to change their body, interrupts that process and can set them up for what may be a lifelong struggle with food and body image.

Body image issues and dieting can lead to eating disorders and long term unhealthy eating habits. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), those who engage in moderate dieting are 5x more likely to develop an eating disorder and those who engage in extreme dieting are 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder.

Food and nutrition have been part of the curriculum in schools for a long time. However, it’s crucial to consider how these topics are being taught to children, the language that is being used and the messages that are being sent. Educators have a great responsibility in encouraging a positive relationship with food and body in students. It is imperative for well-intentioned teachers to understand the profound impact that their words can have on children and teen-agers. Nowadays, there has been an emphasis on healthy eating or “clean” eating. However, young minds can take this out of context and too far; triggering orthorexia, anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and/or extreme guilt and shame around eating foods that teachers, parents or even medical professionals have labeled “unhealthy”. It is not our job to judge how a child eats, or what they look like. A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics, pretty convincingly demonstrated that sending BMI reports to parents has no impact on pediatric obesity and may decrease student weight satisfaction. (Madsen, Thompson, Linchey, 2020). Putting an emphasis on weight and body measurements during health or Phys-Ed classes should also be discouraged.

In the school setting, staff should be mindful of how they talk about food. Here are some tips to encourage a healthy relationship with food and body in students:

  • Instead of talking about exercise to lose weight, or “get in shape”, consider talking about how exercise builds strength, can be fun, and is good for the body and mind.

  • Calories are an unbiased unit of energy, and should only be taught as just that. If talking about food, teach students the importance of eating a wide variety of food and encourage them to try new foods more than once and in different ways.

  • Avoid black-and-white terms such as “good and bad” and speak of all food in positive ways. Children should know that fruits and vegetables are good for them, but also that it is OK to enjoy their favorite foods.

  • Continuously expose children to a wide variety of all kinds of food (fruits, vegetables, and even fun snacks), but don’t pressure to eat.

  • Reconsider talking about or taking weight or body measurements. A child does not and should not have to worry or think about managing their weight. It’s important to remember that body weight is not a sole indicator of health.

  • Encourage conversation on overall wellness such as eating a wide variety of foods, incorporating fun movement/activity, the importance of good sleep and balanced meals, and age-appropriate ways to manage stress.

  • Staff should refrain from discussing their own personal views and dietary habits with students.

  • Empower children to choose the foods they enjoy and encourage the intuitive eater in them. Refer to The Ellyn Satter Institute for more on this topic.

School staff plays an important role in a child’s life. With proper discussion around food, nutrition and weight, we can do our part in helping children cultivate a positive relationship with food and confidence in themselves.

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