Are School Health Lessons Harming Kids?

By Jennifer Yoon, RDN/LDN, Breastfeeding Educator, Pediatric Alliance — St. Clair




Experts say some of what students are taught can lead to disordered eating. While certainly not all health lessons kids are taught in school are harmful, medical professionals and dietitians report students frequently receive advice that isn’t evidence-based. This is a challenge for nutrition experts like Leslie Schilling, writing last week in U.S. News & World Report:

In many schools, health class has become downright harmful. According to family physician, childhood feeding expert and author Dr. Katja Rowell, “harmful, anxiety-inducing ‘health’ advice is everywhere.” Rowell says that “dangerous messages permeate every class, from official assignments to offhand comments or ‘wisdom’ teachers share. A second grader was told by a teacher that sugar is more ‘addictive’ than narcotics. A reading assignment asks a child to circle ‘bad’ foods. A teacher shares her bulimia history in detail with middle school girls, which research shows is risky.” 


These are just a few of the reasons why these health lessons need to change now:

Weight is not wellness.

Jessica Setnick, eating disorder expert and founder of the International Federation of Eating Disorder Dietitians reminds us that “children don’t choose the shape or size of their bodies. When kids judge other kids, we call it bullying. When adults do it, we call it ‘health.’” When schools focus on appreciating bodies of all sizes it takes the focus from weight to wellness, which is multifaceted. When all bodies are celebrated, kids can move their bodies and eat in ways that work best for them.


Focusing on the numbers backfires.

Many times the worry over weight is unfounded and due to the natural changes and development related to puberty. Setnick suggests that “any body composition testing in schools that doesn’t take into account a student’s stage of maturity is going to be hopelessly inaccurate. And a health teacher has no business assessing a child’s pubertal development. Comparing children is just a no-win proposition.”

She suggests that more sensitive children may become overly focused on what they eat and can take numbers to an extreme. Lutz sadly reports that she’s “seen children being afraid of any sugar, or fat or dessert to a point it impacts their growth and well-being.”


Messages are not received the same way by every child.

“When health class teaches nutrition concepts that are fear-based, sensitive students can take these concepts to an extreme, and a message that is intended to promote health can actually interfere with the child’s ability to adequately to fuel their bodies,” Lutz says.

“Kids are dealing with epidemic levels of anxiety,” according to Rowell. “A child may have underlying anxiety or tendencies towards obsessive thinking. A simple message such as ‘avoid salt’ can turn a child into an anxious mess, trying to decipher sodium levels with no evidence that the advice is useful.”


Health looks different for everyone.

Health is relative to an individual, their family needs and their heritage. “One in 5 kids don’t even get enough to eat,” Rowell says. “Shaming them about the kinds of foods their parents are able to, or chose to, provide is cruel.” It’s time that we realized that health doesn’t have “a look” and that defining health for someone other than ourselves may, in fact, cause harm.


My takeaway message for families:  Knowledge is power! Educate yourself and your family on evidence-based healthy eating practices. Information found at or the Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans at offers sound advice for feeding yourself and your family well. All people in the family should eat a healthful, balanced diet most of the time, allowing for treats some of the time, and participate in enjoyable activities together — regardless of body shape or size. If you have concerns about your child’s eating habits or body size, make an appointment with a registered dietitian who is trained to do a thorough evaluation and give sound advice in a sensitive and age-appropriate way.


*** Jennifer Yoon sees patients at the Pediatric Alliance — St. Clair office. For an appointment, please call (412) 221-2121. Read more from Jennifer’s “Nutrition 4 Kids” column on The PediaBlog here.