Diet Culture and Children: Learn How to Make Your School a Safe Space

Diet Culture and Children: Learn How to Make Your School a Safe Space
Diet Culture and Children: Learn How to Make Your School a Safe Space

School Health and Wellness//

March 26, 2023

Diet culture is everywhere—we are told to restrict carbohydrates, avoid sugar, follow keto. From streaming channels and social media to brick-and-mortar stores at the local mall. Filtering this information is difficult for adults. For tweens and teens, distinguishing between the truth and a marketing campaign is nearly impossible.

As educators and administrators, you cannot stop this country’s obsession with food and weight. But you can take steps to protect your students and reinforce a healthy eating culture while they’re in your care.

Eating Disorder or Disordered Eating: Learn the Basics

Eating disorders do not discriminate—everyone is susceptible, regardless of gender or body type. And the statistics are sobering: One in 10 people will be diagnosed with an eating disorder in their lifetime. Those numbers skyrocketed among adolescents during the pandemic.

What constitutes an eating disorder?

Disordered eating affects over 50% of Americans. That number should be no surprise, given the familiar behaviors that fall into this category: overeating, fasting, and an emphasis on weight. Disordered eating may or may not develop into an eating disorder.

Eating disorders follow clinical metrics and should be diagnosed by a mental health professional. Some specific behaviors overlap with those found in disordered eating.

  • Bulimia Nervosa: binging and purging, use of laxatives, induced vomiting, and excessive exercising.
  • Anorexia Nervosa: severely restricting calories, being fearful of gaining weight, and having a distorted body image.
  • Binge Eating Disorder: eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time, without control, not being able to stop eating when full, and eating in private.

Understanding the “Why” of Eating Disorders

Many people have a “love/hate” relationship with their reflection in the mirror—wishing to be taller, thinner, or more toned. How our brains process those thoughts and emotions is critical. Not everyone with a skewed body image has an eating disorder, but mostly everyone with an eating disorder has issues with body image.

What causes some children and teenagers to develop a clinically diagnosed eating disorder?

  • Biological: Close relative with an eating disorder or mental illness, genetic factors, negative energy balance due to dieting, growth spurts, illness, athletics
  • Psychological: anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and perfectionism
  • Social: history of being bullied, lack of strong social connections, weight stigma, gender identity


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Spot the Signs

Seismic shifts in a student’s life create an opening for eating disorders—from the onset of puberty to problems in the home to getting ready for college. Teens are reluctant to confide in adults, so it is hard to get to know them outside the classroom. Developing a rapport with your teenage students will enable you to check in on them regularly, allowing you to notice when something seems different.

Dramatic weight loss is a common red flag—but recognizing a child in distress is multilayered. For example, are they trying to hide weight loss with baggy clothes? Does their hair look thinner? Do they seem more anxious than normal? Are they skipping meals, obsessing about food, or self-isolating? Are they less engaged in classes than they used to be?

Formulate a Plan

Diagnosing someone with an eating disorder should always come from a mental health professional. Ideally, the parents, school, and mental health care providers work in congress to ensure the best outcome for the child.

School can play a significant role in the journey toward recovery once a diagnosis has been made. Regardless of the child’s treatment protocol, develop a plan to support them when they are back on school grounds.

  • Check In. Talk to the student about their life—cocurriculars, personal interests, etc. Never force a student to talk about their disorder.
  • Advocate. Ensure the student has access to food when needed, even during class. Provide a neutral space for eating meals if the cafeteria is a triggering environment.
  • Be Mindful. Avoid any direct comments about the student’s physical appearance or eating habits.

Be Proactive

Conversations around holiday weight gain, complaints about ill-fitting clothes, resolutions to get back to the gym—sound familiar? Administrators, faculty, and staff are bound to have personal conversations during the school day. We’re all human! But adults are always modeling for children and teens, whether they realize it or not. If you seek to create a truly supportive environment, take note: Are you inadvertently contributing to the negative diet culture in your school? Consider an in-service on the topic of eating disorders. Adopt new language about food, weight, and body image. Train counselors and athletic coaches about the signs and triggers for eating disorders. A cultural makeover will benefit the entire school community—and with guidance from a professional, your school can become a safer space for students and staff alike.

*Content courtesy of D&G Wellness.

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