New evidence is surfacing that healthy eating initiatives in schools may be backfiring. It seems that some students have developed eating disorders (or disordered eating) after participating in obesity-prevention and healthy living programs in schools. While cause and effect can not be known for certain (i.e. there is no way for us to know if these students developed these food-related issues as a direct result of these programs) this news does raise an element of concern. I think that there are a number of strategies we, as health care providers and educators, can employ to avoid these unintended consequences.
Firstly, we need to be careful about our messaging. Telling students what they should and shouldn’t eat has the potential to instil in them a sense of guilt when consuming foods they come to believe are “bad”. Infusing eating with negative emotions is definitely a good start for disordered eating. Far better to emphasis healthy and delicious foods and how to incorporate them into diets regularly than to tell kids not to drink pop or eat candy. This reminds me of an episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. While I know that he meant well I was horrified when I saw him making students run laps to teach them how much effort it would take to burn off the calories from their chosen snack (snacks were oranges, chocolate bars, or pop if my memory serves me correctly).
Beyond our messaging, we need to teach by example. It’s one thing to have a dietitian come in and tell the class about healthy eating and nutrition. It’s another, and far more meaningful lesson, thing for children to see their parents, teachers, and other adults living the lifestyle we’re telling them to live. I know that it can be hard to find the time to cook supper some days. I know that after working for 9 hours you don’t want to go to the gym, or run, or whatever your chosen exercise is. Honestly, these activities are the best medicine; both for yourself and for the future generation.