Over the course of the past 17 years that I’ve been in practice, I can’t tell you the number of clients whose eating disorders were triggered by the nutrition unit in health class. There are, of course, other versions of health class in the adult world (podcasts, seminars, doctors’ appointments, even advice from dietitians) that can send someone who is at risk for an eating disorder in to a full-blown episode.
Here are the top 10 components of health class curriculum that I would change, if I could, that think would save people from going down a very painful road:
1) Stop demonizing sugar. Sugar is our number one fuel source - without it we die. I realize that refined sugar is added to many foods these days, however, if we teach children to listen to their hunger signals, legalize all foods, provide variety, and provide opportunities for pleasurable activity, sugar will not be a problem.
2) Stop doing diet recalls. I had to do this in college – the computer program told me that I needed to lose a significant amount of weight and I was at high risk of cardiovascular disease. I was both very active and eating a pretty well-balanced diet at the time – I was horrified! These types of projects cause many people shame and only increase secretive eating disorder behavior. If teachers want to make sure that kids are getting in enough nutrients, how about doing a tally of how many fruits and vegetables or calcium they get in in a week? That way the conversation can be on how to fit in more, not making them feel embarrassed by what they are eating.
3) Promote joyful activity. By focusing on how many hours people should be exercising, we make some people rely on numbers, not on how fulfilling an activity is. Also, by hooking exercise onto weight loss, which many health professionals do, it makes some people give up if they aren’t losing. Our size does not matter in our health and it is beneficial for everyone to participate in activities we like regardless of their size.
4) Look at the big picture. Our bodies don’t have daily cut-off times. If we don’t get the Recommended Daily Allowance of protein in on Monday, we didn’t do any damage. Our bodies actually work on averages. As long as you get a variety of foods in on a two week time frame, you’re good to go. This holds for exercise as well – if you didn’t exercise on Thursday, you don’t need to “cut back” on calories that day. Sometimes extra activity on Monday might not manifest as being hungrier until Wednesday. You just have to listen to your hunger cues, they will never steer you wrong. Which brings me to #5…
5) Teach the students how to recognize hunger and fullness. The number one gold standard of how much and when you’re supposed to eat is your hunger cues. Many people have ignored them for so long that they rarely feel them anymore. Many of my clients report only ever feeling stuffed or starving – nothing in between. Ask the students if they know where their stomachs are and what it feels like when they are hungry (growling, light-headed, “hangry”, etc.). Advise them to not wait until they are starving to eat, if possible, so that they don’t overload their bodies, and to honor the hunger cues when they come so that they can fuel their bodies appropriately.
6) Teach students to recognize what they are hungry for. Contrary to popular belief, if you eat what you are wanting, you will not be eating M&M’s and chips all day. You pretty quickly begin to crave other things as long as it’s ok to eat M&M’s and chips. If it’s not because “junk food” isn’t allowed in the house, there is shame around having it in the culture of the family, or it is in any other way “bad”, then the drive to eat it when it’s available goes up. But if this is not the case, most people desire a wide variety of foods from all different groups. If we don’t eat what we want, then we don’t feel satisfied and we usually end up eating what we wanted afterwards anyway.
7) Always add, never take away. If you want them to eat more fiber, tell them what their goal is and how to get there. If you make processed, low-fiber foods bad, then some of the students will feel some level of guilt when they eat them, which can manifest in two ways: 1) They will overeat them in secret, or 2) They will restrict them and become very rigid about their food. It will all balance out normally if we stop taking things away.
8) Integrate cooking class, or at least a food preparation class. Lots and lots of my clients aren’t interested in cooking, not only because of their eating disorders, but because they have never experienced any kind of advanced food prep. Bring in new foods, try ethnic dishes, experiment with herbs, have contests, anything to get their creative juices flowing. Oh yeah, you can try juicing too!
9) Talk about your own eating (if it is normal and you are comfortable). Kids look up to their teachers, believe it or not. A really big indicator of eating disorders is how parents and other role models eat and talk about eating and their bodies. If you talk about how wonderful the new Ben and Jerry’s flavor that you had last night was, with no guilt, the kids will hear you and get that there’s nothing to feel guilty about.
10) Lighten up. We all need to chill out a little about the “obesity crisis” and see that it might not be what we think it is. There is evidence that being a larger-sized person is not necessarily a bad thing and, in fact , can be healthier than being on the underweight side. Lack of activity and poor nutrition do contribute to disease, and weight can correlate with that, but is not necessarily the cause. We all can be healthier, no matter what our size if we eat intuitively, regularly move our bodies in a way that we enjoy, and pay attention to our mental health.
We just need to pay more attention to what is on the inside.