Elementary Nutrition education lays the ground work for disordered eating.

February 3rd, 2020 by Sara Upson

I’ve been dreading the month of February since September, when my 5 year old started kindergarten.  

At her school, February is the month where the curriculum centers around food and nutrition education.

Last year’s nutrition curriculum was awful.   One day, when my daughter was in the pre-k class, I just happened to take her to class late and the class was working on an activity where they were cutting out pictures of different foods and labeling them as healthy or unhealthy.  The 4 year olds were sitting around their tiny table, in their tiny chairs, asking their teacher if pizza was healthy or if fruit was healthy.  It broke my heart and sent me into a little bit of a rage. 

While I think there is a place for education about food and nutrition within a school system, I also think that it needs to be done very carefully, with intention, awareness, and most importantly in a way that’s age appropriate so that it doesn’t cause harm.  

Nutrition education in school can be extremely harmful.  This month is national eating disorder awareness month and I’ve directly seen the impact of nutrition education at school in the development of eating disorders.  Not just one client, but for many clients, nutrition education in school has lead to development of an eating disorder and set the stage for years of suffering. 

Consider these statistics:

“By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape.” (Smolak, 2011) 

“40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.” (Smolak, 2011)

“42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner.” (Colin, 1991)

Dieting is the number one predictor for disordered eating or eating disorder development.  

Providing education about nutrition in school is something that needs to be done very cautiously.   While I don’t believe the intent of any educator or curriculum is to harm, the impact is that it can be extremely harmful.  

To help avoid harm at school when it comes to nutrition education (particularly with elementary aged children) here are some principles to keep in mind:

1.  Keep food neutral.

Nutrition lessons that focus on rules or labeling foods as healthy/unhealthy good or bad are not age appropriate and harmful.  Elementary aged children are very concrete thinkers and struggle with abstract thinking.  When foods are labeled concretely- good/bad, healthy/unhealthy- it creates fear and mistrust around food, their food providers, and their body. Kids will concretely believe that they are bad or immediately unhealthy because they ate a food labeled as bad or unhealthy.  While this might not be the intention, it is often the impact of the lesson.

Instead:

  • Don’t label food as good/ bad, health/unhealthy etc.
  • Do: have kids identify colors of food, learn about food groups, learn about where food comes from (an apple comes from a tree, a strawberry comes from a plant), the texture of food, foods they like or don’t like.

2.  Promote exploration and creativity.

Labeling food and warning about the danger of food shuts down creativity and exploration.  (Two traits that most educators highly value.)  When foods are labeled as good or bad/ healthy or unhealthy it creates fear based nutrition lessons.  

Fear based nutrition lessons teach kids to ignore their body, their family food traditions and instead teaches rigidity which shuts down exploration and creativity.  Kids will feel guilty after eating, lead to fear of eating, believe that they’re doing something wrong or hurting themselves, not want to disappoint their parents, and in the end, will be more likely to reject new foods.

Instead:

  • Don’t provide judgment labels on food or teach in rigid categories about food
  • Do: consider food preferences and likes.  Look at foods that are similar or different.  Group foods into similar colors, textures, or tastes.  Explore new foods with touch, taste, or smell, use the name of the food.

3.  Respect food preferences

Every food is someone else’s favorite.  Teaching about judgment and labeling food often results in peers or friends making hurtful and disrespectful comments about food, meals, or snacks.  Instead of friendly conversations, peers will comment on others lunches, “That’s bad for you.”  “That’s so unhealthy.”  “Eww that looks gross.”   These negative remarks about other’s lunches are hurtful to kids and disrespectful to other families and cultures.  

Teaching judgment about food, even in the name of health, creates a “right” or “wrong” approach that prevents diversity and respect.  It’s hurtful to kids when they‘re taught that the foods they like, or the foods that are packed for them in their lunch (maybe not even their choice or something they can control) are bad or unhealthy.  This leads to shame.

Food shaming can lead to food refusals at home when that may be the only food available, the only food the family can afford, the only food at the food bank, the only food the family had time to prepare.  It doesn’t foster acceptance, trust, or even long-term health.  It leads to fear, mistrust, and decreased health.

Instead:

  • Don’t promote food labels or judgment.
  • Do: honor food preferences, teach kids how to keep their comments to themselves, teach that food variety and diversity is normal, teach about other cultures eating preferences, that we all have different taste preferences and that’s okay.

4.  Keep it age appropriate

Children do not do meal planning or grocery shopping and often have little say about what is served in their home. The child’s job is to eat the food available in their home.  It’s the parent’s responsibility to purchase food and provide food at regular intervals.  Educating children on how they should eat, or that the food provided by their parents is “bad” leads to mistrust, guilt and shame around food. Children shouldn’t be receiving messages about good/bad food because it’s not their job to buy or prepare food (in addition to the fact above that it requires complex thinking and isn’t appropriate in that way either).

Instead:

  • Don’t teach kids food judgments or label foods.
  • Instead: reinforce food as a priority, provide consistent meals, talk about food likes or preferences, honor food diversity.  

5.  Create positive experiences

Support children in creating lifelong positive experiences around food by keeping food neutral, promoting food acceptance, and by creating a safe/ structured food environment where food is available, provided at regular times, and offered in a calm way where children feel secure so that they can enjoy and explore food.

This also includes providing a safe space for children to try new foods- but only if they desire.  This means that kids can try new foods without any pressure to eat, taste, or even lick the food.  For some kids this may mean not even putting it on their plate (a magic plate or fun plate works well here- where kids have a separate plate just to explore new foods).  While outside pressure may appear positive- in the end it reduces the likelihood that kids will try and accept new foods.  Positive pressure is still pressure.  You can create a positive experience by keeping food neutral with no pressure.

Instead:

  • Don’t force kids to eat, taste, or even touch new foods or foods they don’t like.
  • Do: keep food neutral, offer food at regular times, keep meals calm and enjoyable, provide a variety of food so that there’s always a food they like or feels safe, honor food preferences, let kids explore new food without pressure.

6.  Teach food acceptance

Help children become curious about food and open to trying new foods.  Food variety often correlates with health, higher levels of vitamin and mineral intake, and satisfaction with eating.  You can help create life long eating patterns that encourage variety and excitement to try new foods by promoting food acceptance.  

Teaching food acceptance means that you help kids learn how to experience and act around new foods, how to be open to trying new things, how to be polite around foods that look scary or different, and how to refuse food with politeness.  These are valuable skillsets that promote curiosity, courage, exploration and health throughout life!

Food acceptance and willingness to try new foods is certainly harder to teach than just labeling foods, but it’s a skill that is life long.  Know that kids forced to try foods at home, in families where unfamiliar foods are not presented, in families that only stick to safe foods (lack variety), with sensory issues, and that lack of exposure to new foods due to economic circumstances can all also reduce food acceptance and willingness to try new foods.  

Instead:

  • Don’t force kids to try new foods, label foods, make kids feel bad about their food or eating.
  • Do: Offer food at regular times, offer a variety of foods, honor taste preferences, expose kids to new and different foods, offer a variety of tastes and textures, teach about food from around the world

7. Make it about food, not nutrition

Nutrition education requires context and abstract thinking- well above the skills of elementary aged children.  Don’t make nutrition education about quality.  Don’t even make it about nutrition education. Instead make it about food and make it fun.

Create a safe environment for kids to learn by letting them know that they’ll never be forced to eat the food, taste, lick or even touch they food if they don’t want to.  Then make the lessons around food fun!  Create art projects with food and let kids play with food.  Discuss what kind of food it is, where it came from, who likes it or dislikes it.  When you do this, you create a lifetime of exploration with food, which leads to increased variety, willingness to try new foods, and the freedom to try foods and not like them.

Instead:

  • Don’t teach about nutrition, calories, macros, food judgments, labels.
  • Do: Let kids explore new foods, See if they can identify foods based on touching or smelling the food alone, use food for art projects, honor food preferences, offer samples of new foods

8. Teach kids to trust their body

Respect that everyone is different when it comes to body shape and size and to food preferences.  Teach kids that they can trust their body.  That it’s the right shape or size for them and that it will tell them what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and communicate hunger and fullness.  You can take this a step further by modeling body trust with yourself.  Kids notice what you say and do.   When you’re respectful of food preferences, body cues, and body diversity- kids will accept it too.  

Instead:

  • Don’t: provide judgment or labels around food and body, offer comparisons between different foods, body types, lunches, students, etc.
  • Do: honor food preferences, create neutrality with food, teach that kids can trust their body, that body diversity is natural, model body acceptance and respect.

9.  Make eating a priority.

Teach kids that eating is important and that they can trust their body.  Reinforce this by making eating a priority.  Never skip meals or put eating to the side- make sure that time is always made to nourish their body (and yours- eat with them).  Then provide consistent meals and snacks on a regular basis to honor their body cues and provide nutrition.   

Use Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility with Feeding (DOR)– the parent provides what, when and where of eating while the child chooses if they’re going to eat and how much.  Doing so helps value eating and creates trust with food, while also honoring your child and helping them learn to trust their body.

Instead:

  • Don’t: put other activities above eating, provide inconsistent eating times, promote dieting, food fear, or label foods.
  • Do: Offer food at consistent times, keep food available, teach kids to trust their body, honor food and taste preference, eat with the kids

We need to provide nutrition education that’s helpful, not harmful.  Educators care about kids and kids health.  They often end up in a tough spot when it comes to following a curriculum about nutrition as the intention may be good, but the impact is harmful.

We live in a world where disordered eating is applauded, celebrated and normalized.   Where 3 out of 4 women struggle with disordered eating, 1 out of 7 men and 1 out of 5 women will be diagnosed with an eating disorder by the age of 40, and where eating disorders are increasing in younger and older populations.

Instead of causing harm (by playing into diet culture), we need nutrition education that promotes a lifetime of positive nutrition.  If the goal is to increase health, to create positive attitudes around food and eating- then the message must be one of body trust, body connection, curiosity and exploration- not one of food labels and food rules.  That’s diet culture and it sets the pathway to disordered eating at a very young age.

If you don’t have kids and are wondering how this applies to you, consider these questions:

  • What was your child hood like growing up?  What were your experiences around food like? Did you have these experiences (positive or negative) at school?
  • Consider- how could you reparent yourself and take these messages or principles and begin to apply them to your life today?

These messages are relative to anyone no matter the age.

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