Teaching Kids About Food When Everyone's On a Diet

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From google.comNew Years is an exciting time to be a health teacher. Everyone’s resolved to make a fresh start, gyms are full, people are eager to overhaul their diets, and there is an insane amount of information in the media about how we can make healthy choices. Our students are being surrounded by positive influence, and come back from the break full of questions and information about nutrition.

In the last week or so—as is usually the case this time each year—articles about food have made a complete 180. “12 ways to make a 7 layer dip” has become “5 foods you should never eat again”. And while headlines about healthy eating are always preferable to ones about dip, we need to be careful about the message that this all or nothing approach is sending to our kids.

Clicking though these listicles—and believe me, there are many—you will find that most every food that is not a leafy green is considered off-limits by one diet or another. We need to make sure the kids understand that while different approaches work for different people, there is no quick fix, and healthy eating is all about balance, not restrictions.

Weight Watchers, paleo, juice cleanses, Jenny Craig, fasting, pills—from the healthy options to the not so healthy ones—when it comes to nutrition, everyone’s an expert, and a lot of people are trying to capitalize on our resolutions.

All of this advertising and click-bait journalism is tough for us adults to sift through, but for a 12-year-old with concerns about their changing appearance, it can trigger a number of unhealthy habits… especially when everyone from their relatives to their favorite celebrities are sharing their diets in the news, online, and all over social media.

Here are some tips and resources for helping kids think critically about diet and nutrition.

1. A few words to stay away from: good, bad, always, never

When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight for life, moderation is key. But kids are about instant gratification and often operate with an all or nothing mentality. Words like these can be triggers for a variety of reasons.

If a student is in need of losing weight and slips up by having a “bad food” in the morning, then it can cause them to view the whole day as a wash, leading to more unhealthy choices later on. On the other end of the spectrum, students who are at risk for an eating disorder such as anorexia can cling to these words as a way to justify unhealthy restrictions.

Certainly there are foods that we should have more often than others, and some we should rarely have at all, but words like these encourage people to think of diets as restrictive and something to go on and off of, rather than a healthy way of eating that’s sustainable for life.

(Image from health.com) (Image from health.com)

If you have students who are concerned about their weight, direct them to KidsHealth.org for the most up-to-date and reliable information.

2. Keep the fear of obesity out of our schools

Yet another study has been released looking at the correlation between body acceptance and weight loss efforts. It found that when people felt accepted by their loved ones at their current size, then they were twice as likely to succeed in reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.

The anti-obesity approach can lead to stress, which can lead to more eating. It can also lead to teasing and low self-esteem… and we all know that when you’re not feeling good about yourself, then you’re less likely to make good choices.

The research is clear. If we really want to tackle this obesity epidemic, then we’ve got to teach all kids to have a healthy body image first. Then we can help them get to where they need to be.

3. Teach kids about balance and the joy of eating and preparing real food

While body acceptance is the first step, we can’t ignore the fact that 1/3 of our children are at an unhealthy weight. Making healthy food choices is the clear way to remedy that, but we have to understand that regardless of what method we think is best, our students come from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

One-size fits all is not the best approach, so teaching kids about balance and eating real, un-processed foods can help them make healthy choices, regardless of what’s available in their neighborhoods and homes.

For an idea of how that looks, check out the cutting edge food-based dietary guidelines from Brazil.

And for further information on how to protect all kids from unhealthy or disordered eating, the Educator Toolkit from NEDA is a great place to start.

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 9.51.34 AMAbout the author: Amy teaches Middle School Health at the Shanghai American School and has a passion for curriculum that is current, relevant, adaptable, and shared. She has presented at conferences in Asia as well as the AAHPERD and SHAPE America National Conventions. You can access her blog and resources at thehealthteacher.com and find her on twitter at @teaching_health.