By Lesley Vogel, 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.
An eating disorder is a serious but treatable illness indicated by five general factors: behavioral change, behavioral rigidity, preoccupation with food or calories, social isolation and an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that something is wrong. The chronic, potentially life-threatening medical consequences can affect many aspects of life, including school. Just as healthy students are better learners, poor nutrition is associated with a host of mental, emotional and physical barriers to learning. Ill-nourished students have worse attention spans, spottier memories, lower grades and less impressive scores on standardized tests. They’re more likely to be tired, inattentive, irritable, uncooperative and absent. In short, they’re worse off in the classroom, in the hallways and on the field.
The National Eating Disorders Association provides this list of specific symptoms, but eating disorders must be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional. Unlike drug or alcohol addiction, it is impossible for those with disordered eating habits to avoid the addictive substance. Your student will need a treatment plan and professional support moving forward.
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:
The Main Course (May/June 2018)
The New Allergy-Safe Meal Plan (May/June 2016)
Operation Farm-to-Table (July/August 2017)
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