Are Our Nation’s Schools Giving Kids the Wrong Tools For Developing Healthy Habits?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


With the rise in virtual learning over the course of this year, many parents are getting a better idea of what their children are learning in school.

While balancing this new form of education has been difficult for many of us, it does provide us an opportunity to better understand how our children learn, and how they interpret what they are being taught.

One subject, in particular, has come under fire recently due to how both parents and kids are reacting, leading us to ask, are our kids being given the right tools when it comes to forming healthy habits?

In the past several decades, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed guidelines for public schools to help them implement nutrition education into their curricula.

But for just as long, dieticians and nutritionists have been concerned about the mixed messages our kids are receiving in school when it comes to forming healthy relationships with food.

And in the last decade, as the media has continued to celebrate stick-thin models and products promoting weight loss have become big business, children are being told that it matters more how you look than how healthy you are.

It’s a particular problem with our young girls and teens.  When they focus more on body image than nutrition, the consequences – like eating disorders – can be disastrous.

One mom, who happens to be a nutritionist herself, was aghast to find that her teenage daughter was given an assignment for her virtual health class in which she had to meticulously track what she was eating to form her own nutritional plan.

Her daughter became so frustrated with having to write down and count everything that she would burst into tears and not want to eat at all.

Then there are the children who are shamed by educators for bringing a snack to school that doesn’t fit their idea of balanced nutrition.

Some have even been chastised by their child’s school, with parents receiving notes from teachers requesting they not bring that particular snack to school again — for example, potato chips instead of carrot sticks.

Of course, we all want to teach our children about healthy eating and exercise, but some parents are beginning to fear the focus is becoming dieting and weight loss rather than overall health.

These parents, as well as dieticians who study the way schools teach children about food, are also concerned that the issue is putting more stress on lower income families or those from different cultural backgrounds who have different views on food.

The nation’s Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT) is used to help school districts meet federal standards set out by the CDC and Departments of Health.

But the standards raise eyebrows about how children are being taught to perceive food.  By Grade 2, it is recommended they “demonstrate effective refusal skills” for poor food choices.

By Grade 5, they are encouraged to “improve the food and beverage selections of others,” and by Grade 8, they should be able to use “various methods… to evaluate body weight,” according to the New York Times.

Nutritionists and dieticians are horrified by HECAT.

The bottom line is that what our children are being taught about food in school is leading to feelings of shame and pressure on both parents and kids.

Parents are the first line of defense in teaching our children healthy eating habits from an early age.  It is vital they are introduced to a wide variety of healthy options, as well as proper modeling in the home, to form a healthy relationship with food.

But experts warn that the approach of public schools – going so far as to give “happy” and “sad” face stickers for snacks they bring from home – is putting the emphasis on an emotional relationship to food that often leads to a lifetime of issues.

They believe HECAT is a “disaster,” because it focuses on teaching children that they should count calories, weigh themselves regularly, and see food as a means of acceptance.

Because children are literal, they don’t understand the complex issues of nutrition.

If they are taught that sugary or fatty snacks are “bad,” instead of a healthier viewpoint of enjoying them in moderation, they are apt to develop unhealthy feelings toward these foods – and wanting them even more.

Nutritionists believe that school districts should rework their health curricula to teach children about healthy food choices without any focus on calories or weight loss.

And children who do not have access to better quality foods should never feel shame or guilt from school staff who may not understand their income or cultural background.

Curriculum designed to foster healthy habits should help children to learn about a variety of different foods and their effect on the body, as well as learning about eating disorders and our emotional relationship to the foods we eat.

The current guidelines instead seem to increase anxiety and eating disorders by focusing on weight rather than health, leading to low self-esteem and a lifetime of struggle over food.

Advocates for change also recommend that teachers not be allowed to discuss calories or weight loss, and especially not chastise children or parents for their choices – offering positive reinforcement and support, not judgment.

Only then can our educators support parents in their quest to give our kids the proper tools to make good choices for a lifetime.