When Healthy Eating Lessons Backfire In School

Healthy eating habits taught in schools are backfiring, causing eating disorders due to calorie counting and food journaling.

By Erika Hanson | Published

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Healthy eating habits are instilled in children at very young ages, often upon birth. Lessons about what to eat, what to avoid, and what to moderate are taught by many parents, and then again preached in the school setting. Over the past few decades, America has seen an uptick in childhood obesity, which has led to a push for more advocacy on the subject. But sometimes, these well-intended lessons can backfire, and cause more harm than good in children.

Students in schools across America are required to take health classes. Much of the focus in these courses center around healthy eating habits. Teachers give lessons on calories, suggest children keep food journals, and often encourage them to count their daily calorie intake. But given the fact that the United States is in the midst of a serious and alarming mental health crisis in adolescents, these lessons may lead to eating disorders down the road.

Eating disorders frequently occur in children experiencing a mixture of emotions and physical changes. Developing over time, they can lead to serious life-threatening illnesses. Some experts fear that children may be prone to develop eating disorders by perceiving healthy eating habits taught in school the wrong way.

According to a report from US News, when schools push healthy eating habits that encourage kids to eat better, children are more likely to begin food monitoring. While journaling food intake can be a great way for adults to monitor and manage their weight, it is more likely to produce obsessive habits in children. In turn, this could also affect a child’s mood, their relationships with peers and family, and also bring down their academic success. 

It’s a fine line between a need to steer students down a path of healthy eating habits, and making sure not to urge them into feeling ashamed, stressed, or worse. Instead of discussing the matter more in health classes, some schools are taking an alternative approach in hopes to turn obesity issues around.

A Clinton County health report recently revealed that a large portion of Plattsburgh, NY residents are overweight. 70% of adults were documented this way, along with 46% of middle schoolers, and 36% of elementary students. Looking at that information, the local school district decided to launch an initiative to combat obesity by instilling healthy eating habits in young children at school.

The district isn’t revamping health classes or suggesting young children count calories. Instead, they are using funds to place water refill stations around campus, creating a garden to grow fresh fruit and vegetables, and rethinking gym classes by adding hiking trails around schools. Other schools may serve well looking at this alternative method, which promoted healthy eating habits in a not-so-direct way. 

healthy eating habits

More than 30 million Americans now have eating disorders. The vast majority of them (95%) are aged 12 to 25. Even more critical, among all mental health ailments, those with eating disorders are at the highest risk of death. Child obesity is a growing concern throughout the U.S., but so is mental health issues. While this should be addressed at the school level, lesson plans need to be well thought out and planned, to make sure that they are truly preaching healthy eating habits, and not just scaring children into developing issues down the road.