As I sat in my office, I listened to a school-age child tell me, “I like crackers and I know they are bad for me.” I responded by asking, “What makes you say that?” The child replied, “My teacher told me when we learned about nutrition.”
I wish I could say that the above conversation was an isolated incident, but as a pediatric dietitian, I hear phrases like this from children frequently.
Obviously, due to my career choice as a dietitian, I believe it is important for our children to learn the components of a healthy lifestyle, but when it comes to food, nutrition, and body size, I find that many kids are being taught inaccurate information in ways that are not age-appropriate. This is not really the fault of the teacher because many report they do not feel they have adequate training to teach the topic.
I am not the only professional that is noticing this trend. A few years ago in an article published in US News and World Report, several health professionals voiced their concern about how health and nutrition lessons being taught in school can lead to students fearing foods. Some of the concerning practices that may commonly happen in school health classes include the following:
- Calculation of Body Mass Index (BMI) – BMI is a common screening tool used to assess someone’s weight status. It is only one piece of information used to determine someone’s overall health. For children, BMI percentiles are used to assess weight status and measure growth trends. It is not necessary for a child to learn how to calculate their BMI and the discussion about a child’s BMI should only happen between the parent and the child’s health care provider.
- Using sensationalized food documentaries as a teaching tool – Many children are black and white thinkers, therefore, many of these food documentaries that focus on fearing food can lead to children having an extreme avoidance of many foods at a time when they are growing, and restricting entire food groups (in the absence of a medical reason) can affect growth and development.
- Requiring students to keep a food log and calculate their calories – All children and teens are different depending upon their genetics and activity level, which is why class activities that involve students calculating their calorie needs can be harmful. It could lead to a child thinking that, “The less calories I eat, the better,” and that can be very dangerous thinking for a growing child.
- Making blanket statements regarding certain foods or nutrients – Many well-meaning adults lead children to believe that certain foods are bad. For example, carbohydrates receive a lot of negative press, but carbohydrates include fruits, dairy, grains, and vegetables. These foods have important nutrients, which is why demonizing an entire nutrient group is dangerous.
- Information provided is based on the instructor’s own experience with diet and nutrition as opposed to evidence-based information – Many times I hear that a child’s teacher had just finished the Whole 30 or they are on the Keto diet, and they use their personal information to teach their students. Children and teens do not need to and should not be encouraged to diet. Plus, many popular diets focus on restricting entire food groups, which could lead to nutrient deficiencies in children.
Now you are all likely wondering… What can parents do? The following is what I recommend:
- Ask your child what they are learning in health or gym class.
- Find out if your school district plans to obtain weights and heights to calculate the BMI of students. If so, then ask if you can opt-out of this practice.
- Become familiar with the recommended health curriculum for your state. Here is a link to the recommended health curriculum in the state of Ohio.
- Be an example for your child when it comes to your relationship with food and body image. Avoid talking about foods being “good” or “bad,” and stop talking negatively about your body around your child.
- Contact the teacher or the school if you are concerned your child is receiving inappropriate messages about nutrition and body image.
We all want our children to be healthy. Teachers want children to be healthy. Together we need to make sure we are providing accurate and positive messages about health and not create feelings of fear and shame about what and how children eat.