‘Healthy eating' curriculum can do more harm than good

Nutrition lessons in schools can inadvertently promote unhealthy eating habits by emphasizing food restrictions, calorie limitations, and weight concerns. This article suggests alternative approaches to teaching nutrition that focus on balanced eating and body positivity.

‘Healthy eating' curriculum can do more harm than good

Oona Hanson, a parent coach and family mentor, believes that nutrition lessons taught in schools can have unintended negative consequences on children's eating habits and overall well-being. While these lessons aim to improve health, they often unintentionally convey messages similar to those of eating disorders, such as cutting out certain foods, limiting calories, and fearing weight gain.

Hanson has found that navigating school nutrition units can be particularly challenging for parents of children with eating disorders. Many families wonder if it is safe for any student to engage in these activities and often request exemptions or alternate assignments for their child. Zoë Bisbing, an eating disorder therapist, describes delivering a nutrition lesson as "leading an expedition into a minefield."

While not every student will be harmed by these lessons, there is no way for educators to know who may be at risk. For some children, nutrition lessons can be "explosive" and can trigger or catalyze an eating disorder. Nicole Cruz, a registered dietitian, explains that well-intended lessons can lead to black-and-white thinking and disordered behaviors around food.

The challenge for teachers lies in the gap between the complex nature of nutrition and children's concrete thinking. Teaching about food may seem straightforward, but it can take children away from listening to their internal signals and body cues. Asking students to focus on nutrition details or categorize foods rarely leads to beneficial changes in their eating habits.

Lessons that categorize foods as "sometimes foods" can be particularly confusing for children. They may fear having too much of a "sometimes food" and conclude that they should never have it. Some students may rebel against guidance on "healthy eating" by avoiding recommended items and seeking out the very foods labeled as bad.

Teaching nutrition to tweens and teens is especially risky as research shows that many of them already experience body dissatisfaction. Following typical "healthy eating" guidance to lose weight can result in missing out on much-needed nutrition during a time when they have high calorie and nutrient needs for growth and development.

The unintended impact of nutrition lessons is not limited to triggering eating disorders. Neurodivergent children, those from food-insecure households, and students whose cultural foods differ from the standard presented in class may find these lessons unrelatable or harmful.

To address nutrition standards without risking harm, it is important to teach basic nutrition facts and terminology in a neutral way without labeling specific foods as good or bad. Teachers can also focus on the joy of eating, the pleasure of sharing food, and the connection that comes from preparing food together.

While nutrition curriculum has an impact on students, parents play a major role in helping children learn about food. Having conversations with children about what they're learning at school can provide an opportunity to explore their relationship with food and address any concerns. Approaching teachers with curiosity and assuming positive intent can help find a path forward.

For children with eating disorders or special dietary needs, it is advisable to have conversations with teachers even before the first nutrition-related lesson. Being proactive and building a partnership with the school can benefit the child and raise awareness among teachers about the complexities and potential pitfalls of these lessons.