What You Need to Know About Teaching Eating Disorders

By
Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: Eating disorders are always a tricky subject. That's why Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--worked with a specialist to make sure she handled the topic appropriately in class. Follow these tips to ensure your lesson has the right impact.

 

Several years ago, there were a few cases of severe eating disorders that popped up in our school. Wanting to make sure we were supporting those students on their road to recovery, we brought in Dr. Lauren Muhlheim, an eating disorder specialist and clinical psychologist, to work with all members of the staff. Dr. Muhlheim's goal was to guide us to develop curriculum and school policies that could help all of our students maintain a healthy body image while we supported those who were already struggling.

 

It was an impactful week for me, as I had to take a critical look at the way I had been addressing nutrition and body image in my classroom. During Dr. Muhlheim's visit, I sat in on workshops she did with faculty, students, and parents. We were also fortunate enough to have her facilitate some departmental meetings with our Health and PE teachers, where we really had to reevaluate our curriculum and approach.

 

Nobody wants to find out that what they've been teaching is wrong, especially when it could potentially be harming their students. But health education is constantly changing, and at the time of Dr. Muhlheim's visit, the obesity epidemic was on the rise. Health and PE teachers everywhere were passionately trying to reverse the trend.

 

What I learned during her visit though is that the roots of eating disorders and obesity are the same. If we wanted all of our students to have a healthy relationship with their bodies and with food, there were some changes that we needed to make right away. These key takeaways still shape my teaching practice today.

 

1. DON'T explicitly teach kids about eating disorder behaviors. DO address them if they're brought up.

 

Teaching kids about the specifics of eating disorders might introduce them to behaviors that they weren't yet aware of. In fact, many teens develop disordered behaviors after watching a movie about them or, sadly enough, learning about them in health class.

 

Of course, this isn't a topic that should be ignored. By focusing on awareness and the influence of media, you can stir up a sense of cognitive dissonance in students that will prompt them to look out for themselves and their friends.

 

2. DON'T demonize obesity. DO teach kids to love and take care of the body they're in.

 

This is one I always thought I was getting right. As someone who struggled with obesity as a teenager, I wanted nothing more than to help kids from going down the same path that I did. Back then, we used to watch the Jamie Oliver TED talk on obesity and a DVD on soda called Obesity in a Bottle.

 

While all well intentioned, it hadn't occurred to me how such messaging could shame the students who might be worried about their weight, and frighten the ones who weren't. Dr. Muhlheim shared with us an excellent body image curriculum, Healthy Bodies by Kathy Kater. It teaches all kids to love and care for the body they're in.

 

3. DON'T focus on calories, numbers, and the fear of getting fat. DO focus on nutrients, cooking, and the love of real food.

 

When nutrition education focuses on calories, fat grams, and other numbers-based methodology, students can grasp onto unhealthy fixations about what they can and can't eat. It's better to teach students about all of the wonderful ways food can help us and how fun and tasty it can be to make good choices. After Dr. Muhlheim's visit, I scrapped the fast food project that had my students looking at the ingredients and nutritional information on fast food, and took them into the kitchen to make smoothies instead.

 

We all want what's best for our students, and sometimes that means changing things up--especially when the experts say that we should!

 

Want more tips on tackling eating disorder prevention in your school? Check out the Educator's Toolkit from NEDA, the National Association of Eating Disorders.

 

MORE BODY IMAGE AND EATING DISORDERS CONTENT FROM CHOICES

Take a look at this debate with your students. Do advertisements create unrealistic standards of beauty for teens?

Ninety percent of girls say they have been bullied based on the way they look. Teach teens about the risks of body-shaming language.

Binge-Eating Disorder is sometimes misdiagnosed simply as overeating, but it's a dangerous illness that requires professional help. 

 

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