Over the last 2 months of the COVID-19 stay at home orders, like many of you, I have been home more with my children and helping them with their virtual learning. I have a 7th grader and a 4th grader, who both over the last several weeks have had school lessons about nutrition and health. Over the years, I’ve had some exposure to their nutrition lessons, but I’ve had a much closer look these last couple of months. It’s highlighted for me how much work we have to do regarding how we teach our children nutrition.
Over the last 20 years, how and what we teach children about food has become more weight focused and developmentally inappropriate. Instead of teaching children where food comes, exposing them to new foods, and teaching them to care for and respect their bodies, we teach fear and mistrust. The examples of this are endless, but a few were literally in my home recently.
We need to stop teaching children that appearance indicates health.
A couple weeks ago, my 7th grader was learning about hypertension and took a quiz on “Brain Pop,” a teaching platform commonly used in US schools. She called me into her room to view the question, because she knew how offensive it was. The question read: “Which of the following people are least likely to have hypertension.” There were then 4 cartoon images:
- A. A woman of color, with yellow teeth, smoking a cigarette
- B. A man in a large body
- C. A thin man, with gray hair
- D. A man in a baseball hat, with a baseball bat
The quiz question was upsetting on so many levels and reinforces stereotypes and stigma. My daughter immediately pointed out to me how terrible it was to portray a person of color in this way, and the stereotypes it was perpetuating. Furthermore, the question asks the student to make a judgement, based on a cartoon picture, and then equate it to a health marker you cannot see. We are literally teaching children to judge people by how they look.
A 2008 study, looked at if BMI was an accurate indicator of metabolic health. In the study, the researchers defined metabolic health by blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin resistance, and inflammation indicators. The study found that using BMI as an indicator of metabolic health, misdiagnosed 23.5% of “normal” weight people as healthy, misdiagnosed 51.3% of “overweight” people as unhealthy and misdiagnosed 31.7% of “obese” people as unhealthy (doi: 10.1001/archinte.168.15.1617). If we know this, why are we teaching children to judge someone’s health by looking at a cartoon portrayal of a human? What we know is that health doesn’t look a certain way and stigma and prejudice of all kinds leads to worse health outcomes.
We need to stop teaching children to fear foods.
During the same unit, my daughter was told to avoid frozen foods, because they cause hypertension. The same week, Elizabeth posted a blog post about different ways to cook frozen vegetables. My daughter read this to me and then looked wide eyes and said “frozen food”? We often have frozen food, and even more now during the pandemic. My daughter recently has started making a smoothies out of frozen berries as a snack and is so proud of herself when she does this. If you’re thinking, “but that’s not what they meant,” you and I can understand these abstract intricacies, but children cannot. Nutrition is not black and white and when we teach children nutrition in a fear based, absolute way, we create more fear and confusion.
We need to stop teaching children to fear weight gain.
Another example of an age inappropriate nutrition lesson was from my 4th grader. Last week, he watched a Brain Pop video that said he should exercise to maintain his weight. We don’t want 4th graders to maintain their weight. If a child is not gaining weight it is a sign that something could be medically wrong. More importantly, we want children to love and enjoy body movement, to the best of their ability, to keep their minds and bodies strong. (I’m starting to think of the best way to be heard by Brain Pop, stay tuned!)
Developmentally Appropriate Nutrition Education
A few months ago, when my 4th graders’ nutrition unit was approaching, I offered to do a lesson for the class. At that time, I had no idea it would need to be virtual, but I was still excited to teach his class a developmentally appropriate nutrition lesson. I created a virtual lesson and wanted to share it with you, in case you want to use it with your upper elementary aged child. The lesson is about the “Edible Parts of the Plants.” The video is below along with 2 handouts to go with it.
What makes this lesson developmentally appropriate? It teaches children concrete information about food and doesn’t include moralistic views of food. The lesson encourages the student to learn more about the foods they eat and think about where the foods come from. My 4th grader asked me to add the first 3 tips, because he wanted his classmates to hear what I tell him at home. If I was doing this lesson in person, I’d also include a no-pressure taste test.
Please feel free to use and share. I’ll be sharing more information as the full curriculum is completed.
More Resources for Nutrition Education
A friend and colleague of mine, Katherine Zavodni, and I are working on a nutrition curriculum for preschool and elementary aged children, as an alternative to the weight focused curriculum and lessons. This curriculum aims to use developmental theory to inform what and how we teach children about nutrition. We will keep you updated.
Other Resources We Love:
- Don’t Teach My Kids to Diet, 5 Resources to Give Teachers and Schools, Sunny Side Up Nutrition
- Help! My Kid has been sent home with a serve of diet culture, The Mindful Dietitian
- Let’s Make Our Classrooms and Schools Free of Diet Talk, Sunny Side Up Nutrition
- Healthy Bodies, Middle School Curriculum, Kathy Kater