Kids Getting the Wrong Message About Food and Weight

Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works
By Evelyn Tribole M.S. R.D., Elyse Resch M.S. R.D. F.A.D.A.

“Fat bodies are bad.”

“Getting healthy means counting calories.”

“Sugar is more addictive than narcotics.” 

According to Are School Health Lessons Harming Kids (U.S. News for Parents blog), author Leslie Schilling quotes physicians, dietitians, and other experts working with children who hear these kinds of messages in school.  I recently wrote a blog post about moms’ diet talk and how it can trickle down to our kids whether we want it to or not.  Another place kids are picking up diet talk and potentially wrong information about food and nutrition is in schools.

But…. do we need to protect our children from EVERYTHING? As a mom I definitely think kids need to figure some things out on their own, and decipher information they receive as something they believe in or not. Yet young kids do look up to and believe much of what their teachers, coaches, and doctors tell them. Unfortunately, many adults who are role models to our children are handing out incorrect nutrition information or in some cases using scare tactics that link eating certain foods to something bad happening in the body. 

According to the article, some kids have school assignments where they keep food diaries and analyze it for “good” or “bad” foods. Maybe some kids completing this assignment have never even thought of food in terms of “good” or “bad”. After completing an assignment like this they may question their food choices. While it’s important kids receive guidance on eating, they should never have to feel guilt over what they eat because it’s “bad”, “fattening”, “too sugary”, and so on.

Most teachers and other adult role models don’t set out to use harmful words intentionally. It would be beneficial for those working with kids to receive training on how to teach kids nutrition using positive words. For instance, instead of saying “fat is bad”, we can teach that fat does have a place in our diets and provide examples in the context of an entire day’s worth of food.

We can also teach body size and how we are all different shapes and sizes stemming from our genetics.  We can talk about ways to move our bodies, how food fuels our bodies, and foods to ADD to our diet rather than foods we should be AVOIDING or taking away.  There is absolutely NO reason a child of any age should be micro-focused on their body shape and how they eat. 

Last year when my son was in second grade he came home with this reading comprehension assignment: 


I immediately see the words “bad nutrients” and “unhealthy” to describe total fat, cholesterol, sodium, and carbohydrates. I told my son these foods are NOT BAD and that if he eats them it doesn’t mean something bad will happen in his body.  I explained we need these nutrients in our diet and they can be balanced out with other things we eat in a day. 

The chart at the bottom breaks down calorie intake suggestions by gender and age group. I told my son that focusing on calorie counting is not important. He needs to understand true feelings of hunger, identify what he is in the mood to eat, and understand how his food choices will make his body feel. For example, if he’s about to go to a swim lesson, perhaps he should choose something with less fat and fiber so it doesn’t slow his digestive process and cause cramps. A better choice may be higher in carbohydrates for a quick release of energy while swimming. In a case where he hasn’t had anything to eat in a few hours and is ravenous, something like a bag of Goldfish crackers (carbs only) probably won’t satisfy him as much as a sandwich that has a combination of carbs, protein, fat, and fiber for satiety.

I’m sure most of his classmates viewed this assignment as nothing more than homework. Get it done and move on. But there are always those few children who may start wondering about “bad foods” and calories. The point of the assignment was reading comprehension, not a lesson in nutrition, but the messages are sent.

Some schools have used scare tactics to teach nutrition.  Movies on what is REALLY inside that fast food burger.  Talk about “bad foods” that will cause cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. It is FOOD. Not cigarettes or drugs. We need food to live. What about the students whose parents can only afford foods that aren’t exactly seen as “nutritious”? Here’s another thing: it is NOT out of the ordinary for children to love fast food burgers, boxed mac and cheese, cupcakes, or sugary candy.  They are going to want to eat it. Categorizing these foods as “bad” can cause kids to start feeling guilty about eating what they enjoy, and this can last a lifetime.

In an attempt to combat the “childhood obesity crisis” some schools have measured students’ BMI and included this on their report card.  This is absurd! Could you only guess how this can backfire? A student who is already self-consicous about his weight, possibly even teased over it, and now the school nurse is categorizing him as “obese” according to his BMI? The school is NO place for children to be weighed or measured.

As for pediatricians, a lot of education needs to be done here on how weight is viewed and discussed. My son’s pediatrician agreed with me that diets don’t work. Pediatric patients are put on diets that in the end lead to more problems, such as higher weights and psychological side effects. Placing kids on diets can set them up for a lifetime of disordered eating and possibly never being at peace with food.

Has anyone had an experience where their child came home from school, sports, or other activity talking about foods or body types in a negative way? Have your kids ever had an assignment where they need to analyze the way they eat or something similar? I’d love to hear more from you!