Do No Harm: ED Prevention Strategies in Schools
From my own school experiences, I have found that there is much emphasis placed on healthy eating and weight control. I am sure you can think back to your own or your children's school experiences and pinpoint a time when 'healthy eating' and weight were discussed. In my case, the focus on weight and eliminating 'junk' food led me to become more entrenched in an eating disorder. So, how do schools 'prevent' EDs through their education programs? One article focused on just that: School-Based Interventions to Prevent Eating Problems: First Do No Harm.
Not surprisingly, the authors found that programs focusing on obesity were unsuccessful. If we are telling kids that they shouldn't enjoy chocolate because they will become obese, what does this say about being overweight? It can make children feel that being overweight is equal to being ‘inferior’, ‘lazy’, or ‘sinful’. Furthermore, it can make students feel nervous about food choices and their weight, opening the door for negative thoughts and emotions about themselves, and food. In addition, speaking negatively about certain foods, like chips, bread, juices, candy, etc. can lead students to think in an all-or-nothing manner: 'if teachers say that candy is bad, then I am bad if I eat candy. So, I cannot eat candy at all - not even a little bit'. Students fail to see that moderation and enjoying all foods is encouraged. The emphasis on food and weight makes students become more easily influenced by the media and other sources, which can lead them believe that eating is all about one’s appearance. For example, students can come to view eating not as a necessary component for health, but rather as a means of looking a certain way. Instead of helping students understand that all food is needed and acceptable for a healthy body and mind, school environments are pressuring students to see eating as a competitive activity, one in which the 'best' and 'healthiest' eaters have the 'best and fittest' bodies. Without a doubt, this can lead to serious mental and emotional concerns....and potentially, eating disorders.
I highly recommend that you read the article mentioned above- it is easy to understand, and also has great information not only for schools, but also for us in our everyday lives. The authors note that rather than presenting food in a negative manner, schools (and you, as a member of society!) should speak about food in a more positive light. We need to acknowledge our dependence on food for energy and sustenance. We ought to be mindful that all foods are perfectly acceptable in a healthy lifestyle. We need to stop seeing weight and calories as indicators of health and happiness. We must also not be swayed by images and media pressures that tell us that beauty is only a matter of weight and appearance. Focusing on strategies to improve self-esteem and confidence are essential, as they help students understand that their self-esteem and appreciation for themselves should not be based on what foods they eat or what number is on the scale. Food and eating should be presented in a positive manner that allows students to feel safe and comfortable. Eating should be viewed as a fun experience that allows for creativity, adventures, social time, enjoyment, and even learning.
As a member of society, this article has implications for you, too. If you are a parent, this article can help you understand how you can teach your children about food and health. In the workplace, at home, or even when you are out with family and friends - you can be a positive role model. You can approach food and health in a positive manner and you can demonstrate that food is to be enjoyed, celebrated - not despised or feared. You can illustrate that health comes in all sizes (HAES) and is not dictated by a number on the scale.
I challenge you today to look at how you view food and health, and to reflect on how you can change your actions and thoughts to model positive and healthy relationships with food. You will see and feel the difference - and others will, too. And you will help spread very important, but often neglected and hidden messages: health is more than just a number on the scale, food is in fact a necessary and life-saving component, and our focus ought to be on living HEALTHY, BALANCED, and HAPPY lives!
Image Credit: Prevent Cancer Now
Marina Abdel Malak is recovered from a long battle with anorexia nervosa. She has completed her Bachelor of Science in Nursing and is the author of 'Recipe for Recovery: I Battled and Overcame an Eating Disorder, and You Can, Too!'. More information on her book can be found here. She is a NEDIC volunteer, and an active advocate/workshop presenter for eating disorder awareness, and mental and physical health. She is currently studying medicine (MD) in Ontario. You can also follow her blog.