Dismantling the dieting dialogue

In recent years, widespread activism has prompted school districts across the nation to adjust their health education curriculums to best satisfy the needs of today’s students. After educators came together to prove that preaching abstinence was an ineffective form of sexual education, we began to see more schools teaching about proper protection and consent in a way that would prepare students for a more realistic future. When experts sounded the alarm at a drastic decline in adolescent mental health, educators began to teach students about depression, anxiety and suicide. However, another area that would benefit from modernization is one that for decades has remained largely unchanged: nutrition and dietetics. 

According to eatingdisorderhope.com, 2.7 percent of teens ages 13-18 struggle with an eating disorder, while 50 percent of teenage girls and 30 percent of teenage boys have used unhealthy methods of weight control. Whether it’s an easily classifiable eating disorder or a combination of disordered eating behaviors that don’t fit a specific diagnosis, these conditions and habits can be dangerous and possibly fatal to developing teens. 

Like many teenagers, I know what it’s like to be the person at the dinner table who doesn’t order dessert, not because I’m full, but because I have hit a mental barrier. I know what it’s like to feel anxious after missing a workout, to compare the size of my plate with everyone else’s and to look at a milkshake as if it was the grim reaper. Though I noticed most of these behaviors before they were able to escalate to the point of a classifiable eating disorder, they have been with me for almost as long as I can remember, and like some of my classmates, they are simply a fact of life.

According to eatingdisorderhope.com, 2.7 percent of teens ages 13-18 struggle with an eating disorder, while 50 percent of teenage girls and 30 percent of teenage boys have used unhealthy methods of weight control.”

Because of this, when my health class played a game about food and nutrition, I knew that I should not jump in for a few participation points. During this activity, we were told that soup should be considered a “cheat meal” due to its high sodium content. We were asked to raise our hands if we ate dessert regularly and were warned about the “hidden liquid calories” found in soft drinks. Although I was grateful that I had come to a point in my life where this information did not affect me the way it would have a couple of years ago and understood that my teacher had good intentions, I couldn’t help but worry about those who may not be in the right mental space for this kind of discussion. 

To remediate the harmful dialogue surrounding food between adults and teens, we must start by removing certain terms from our vernacular entirely. We cannot live in a world where  “everything in moderation” and “cheat meals” coexist. There are no “good foods” or “bad foods,” and before adults scare teens away from their favorite foods, they should encourage them to finish every meal feeling satisfied rather than guilty or regretful. By now, it should be safe to assume that teens know that apples are more nutrient-rich than cheesecake, but adults have to remind teens that there is room in our diets for both.

 Furthermore, adults must be careful when referring to foods in terms of calories and macronutrients; food is more than a number, and no two teenagers have the same nutritional needs. We must also stop implying that teens themselves are defined by numbers. 

An anonymous WHS senior reported calculating her Body Mass Index during health class, even though, according to medicalnewstoday.com, many experts now consider BMI to be an inaccurate measure of body fat content. Though the teacher was only trying to introduce a useful health indication tool, adults must be careful not to mistakenly introduce teens to their newest numerical fixation.

By modernizing the conversation surrounding nutrition, adults may be able to position themselves as the first line of defense against the next generation of eating disorders.

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org or call the NEDA hotline at 800-931-2237