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‘Healthy eating’ curriculum can do more harm than good

Analysis by Oona Hanson, CNN

(CNN) — Editor’s note: Oona Hanson is a parent coach in private practice and a family mentor at Equip, an eating disorder treatment program. She specializes in supporting parents to raise kids who have a healthy relationship with food and their body.

Children across all grade levels are taught nutrition concepts aimed at improving health, but I find these well-intended lessons can end up backfiring, harming kids’ eating habits and their overall well-being.

Nutrition lessons — largely driven by state education standards — can be damaging because they unintentionally convey the same messages as an eating disorder: cut out certain foods, limit calories and fear weight gain.

In my work supporting parents and guardians whose children have eating disorders, the process of navigating school nutrition units can be particularly fraught. While requesting an exemption or alternate assignment for their child, families I talk with rightly wonder whether it’s safe for any student to engage in these types of classroom activities.

Most teachers don’t realize that delivering a nutrition lesson can be “leading an expedition into a minefield,” according to Zoë Bisbing, an eating disorder therapist in New York City.

Not every student will be harmed by these types of assignments, but there is no way for an educator to know who may be at risk. While certain students may get something useful out of the material or simply not think twice about it after class, for some children, nutrition lessons can be “explosive” and can “catalyze an eating disorder,” Bisbing added.

“Well-intended lessons lead to black-and-white thinking, which leads to disordered behaviors around food,” said Nicole Cruz, a registered dietitian in Agoura Hills, California.

The underlying challenge for teachers is the gap between the nuanced, highly individual aspects of nutrition and the place where kids are in their brain development. While teaching about food might seem straightforward, “nutrition is actually quite complex, and kids are concrete thinkers,” Cruz noted.

Asking students to focus on nutrition details or categorize foods rarely translates into them changing their eating in ways that are beneficial. “When we give kids too much nutrition information, it really takes them away from their body cues and being able to listen to their internal signals,” Cruz added.

School lessons focused on abstract categories such as “sometimes foods” can be particularly tricky for children to understand. Kids may fear having too much of a “sometimes food” and conclude they should never have it.

Trying to please the teacher can then lead them to “go down a rabbit hole of cutting out more and more foods — or eating those foods and then feeling guilty,” Cruz said. In contrast, some students hear guidance around “healthy eating” and then rebel against it by avoiding the recommended items and seeking out the very foods labeled as bad, she noted.

Teaching nutrition to tweens and teens is especially risky. “Research shows most of our kids are already experiencing body dissatisfaction,” Cruz said. Following typical “healthy eating” guidance to try to lose weight can mean “missing much-needed nutrition at a time when teens have a high need for calories and nutrients for growth and development.”

Triggering an eating disorder isn’t the only unintended impact of nutrition lessons. The textbook picture of a “healthy” food simply isn’t the same for every child. Neurodivergent kids, those who live in a food-insecure household, and students whose cultural foods don’t resemble the US Department of Agriculture MyPlate image presented in class may find school nutrition lessons unrelatable or even harmful.

“If you have a kid with sensory differences who relies on certain foods, and they learn that their safe foods are bad or unhealthy, that’s really shaming and confusing,” Bisbing said.

There are ways to address nutrition standards and teach food concepts without risking harm. When covering basic nutrition facts and building familiarity with terminology, the key is to “strive to teach those in a way that is as neutral as possible without labeling specific foods as good or bad,” said Christopher Pepper, a health educator in San Francisco who writes the newsletter Teaching Health Today.

In addition to keeping morality out of nutrition lessons, teachers can make room for discussions about the experience of eating rather than reducing every food choice to a high-stakes health decision, according to Pepper.

“Moving towards lessons that emphasize the joy of eating, the pleasure of sharing food with others, and learning how to prepare food as a way to connect with other people” are worthy goals for educators, he said.

Nutrition curriculum has an impact on students, but families still play a major role in helping kids learn about food. “Classroom lessons are one place that young people get information, but parents are going to have a much bigger influence on their child’s understanding of food and nutrition,” Pepper added.

Having conversations with your children about what they’re learning at school can be the perfect opportunity to explore how they are relating to food and what questions they may have. Parents or guardians with concerns about the nutrition curriculum can approach the teacher with curiosity and with the assumption of positive intent. “Seeing yourself as a partner with your child’s teacher” is the best way to communicate and find a path forward, Pepper advised.

Especially for kids with eating disorders or other special dietary needs, it makes sense to have conversations with their teachers even before the first nutrition-related lesson. Being proactive and building a partnership with the school will not only help your child but may also “plant a seed of awareness in that teacher,” Bisbing said.

As educators learn about the complexities and potential pitfalls in some of these lessons, they are more likely to make adjustments that will be more inclusive and health-promoting for all students.

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