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Creating a Healthy Environment to Reduce the Risk of Eating Disorders

By Net Assets posted 08-28-2018 09:37 AM


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Students at private schools are particularly high-risk for these serious but treatable illnesses.

 By Lesley Vogel, SAGE Dining Services 

lesley vogel
Lesley Vogel
Nutrition Director
SAGE Dining Services

Health is all about balance, but our society glorifies extreme thinness through restriction, exercise and any other means necessary. By equating thinness with health, attractiveness, self-control, moral goodness and happiness, we create a false equation that leads many vulnerable children and young adults to turn to food as a means of control over their lives. Is it any wonder that eating disorders are on the rise?

Characterized by obsession with food, body image and weight, eating disorders usually develop in adolescence. Although people of any age can be affected, students at private schools are particularly high-risk — not only because of their age, but also because of high expectations for their academic and athletic performance. When already high-achieving students internalize these expectations, it adds sometimes-unbearable pressure. 

Early intervention can save lives. We believe it is critical for every school to establish a clear but discreet process and reporting policy for sharing concerns about changes in a student’s eating patterns or behavior.

First, we recommend that you discuss such concerns with the school counselor or nurse, who can then make the decision of how best to communicate with the student’s parents and get him or her to a doctor or counselor. Consult these resources from NEDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for best practices and guidance in establishing a clear reporting policy at your institution.

Moreover, teachers and other school professionals can reduce the risk of eating disorders in students. Studies show that adults play a major role in influencing kids’ food preferences, eating habits, portion sizes, nutritional intake and attitudes about food. In fact, of all the forces that influence adolescent health-risk behavior, the most critical are family and school. Here are some tips for helping students form healthy relationships with food:

Emphasize variety, balance and moderation.

  • Offer a variety of ingredients, cuisines and whole-food options in your dining hall.
  • Give adequate time for meals and encourage sit-down meals. Consider reconfiguring your schedule or allocating funding to renovating your dining hall.
  • Don’t identify foods as “bad.” Instead, discuss balance and moderation.
  • Don’t restrict or require foods. Doing so increases the likelihood that students will do the exact opposite when they feel they’re not being watched.
  • Promote an understanding of food groups or macronutrients (rather than counting calories) to encourage balanced eating behaviors without increasing the risk of eating disorders. Refrain from posting calories — instead, use symbols or colors to indicate relative nutrient density.

Offer positive nutrition messaging.

  • “Eat your colors,” “Variety, balance, and moderation, and “Food is fuel.”
  • Don’t engage in fat talk, food shaming, diet talk or calorie-counting — even about yourself. Implement policies to discourage bullying, especially weight-based bullying.
  • Don’t equate food with positive or negative behavior (e.g., saying you were “good” today because you didn’t eat that donut, or offering food-based rewards for good grades).

Take the focus off food.

  • Contextualize food with culture and opportunities for socialization (e.g., holiday traditions, mealtime conversations) so it’s not associated solely with health and appearance. Incorporate display cooking, educational events, family-style dining or other environmental cues that signify that mealtime is about more than food.
  • Carve out time for students to garden and cook with each other, as well as teachers, administrators, and staff members. Highlight the food they’ve grown in the dining hall and at special events to recognize their work.

Cultivate emotional strength and self-confidence.

  • Teach and model “coping and life skills,” such as self-esteem, problem solving, decision making, assertiveness, communication, healthy relationships and stress management. Also consider modeling it in the literature, word problems and project-based learning.
  • Encourage critical media consumption — challenge media messages that thin people are more deserving of love, fame or success. Teach academic analytical skills with the understanding that your students will use them not only on texts and in mock trial, but also as they navigate the outside world.

Educate staff at all levels.

  • Train them to recognize and report potential signs of an eating disorder.
  • Encourage them to examine their own attitudes about body image, and to model these positive behaviors.
Lesley Vogel, RD LD, is nutrition director at SAGE Dining Services.


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