The concern over obesity has led many schools to adopt curriculum designed to teach children how to make healthy food choices and incorporate exercise into their daily activities. For some children, the information may help them learn to make good decisions about food intake.
However, a recent study by Canadian researchers shows that these healthy eating programs may be creating significant problems for some students. The researchers say that the programs may be creating for some children a sudden awareness of food restriction that was not present before.
One situation involved a young teen boy at a healthy weight who lost significant weight following a school program focused on healthy living. The boy began restricting his food intake, excluding from his diet the “junk foods and bad foods” as well as his consumption of meat and dairy.
The researchers, comprised of a team of experts from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, located in Ontario, indicate that there has been no evidence that the programs are either effective or absent of inadvertent dangers regarding children’s health. However, many schools are incorporating the programs as a response and solution to the obesity epidemic.
The researchers highlighted four cases in which children were admitted to an eating disorder program following enrollment in a school healthy eating program. Each of the children cited the idea of attempting to incorporate healthy lifestyle habits, a notion that was not present prior to the program exposure. Before the school programs, none of the children had any particular thoughts about their body shape, weight or eating behaviors.
One case discussed in the study involved a girl whose “progressive food restriction” was initiated following the visit of a dietitian to class in which permissible and impermissible foods were discussed. Eventually, the young girl lost extensive weight and required hospitalization.
The first author of the study, Dr. Leora Pinhas, a child psychiatrist at Sick Kids, also serves as a co-chair of the Growing Healthy Bodies working group for The Sandbox Project, a think tank for pediatric health. Pinhas explains that the kids who may be affected by the school programs may fit a certain profile.
The children who are negatively impacted by the programs are the students who excel in academics and extracurricular activities and view the program as another measure of their success. They want to follow the rules and do well at healthy living, so they begin to try to succeed in a type of competition for the healthiest kid.
However, the authors of the study note that children maturing through the regular phases of adolescence may be especially vulnerable to the message of the school health programs. The programs may be strengthening a developing cultural message that there is a moral value in eating healthy and being thin.
In addition to the educational programs, many schools are adopting rules about what foods are allowed at school. While the school’s intent is to raise the level of healthy eating among all children, the parents are the ones buying the food. This may introduce a moralistic lens for eating for children, say the researchers.