An underlying epidemic is spreading among an unseen, struggling student population. School administration and support staff are not adequately trained or equipped with resources to prevent or identify it. This most misunderstood illness is a serious, biological-based disorder related to habits, thoughts and emotions that is substantially rising for the next generation. With the second highest mortality rate, it is only surpassed by opioid addiction. The most concerning finding is that over the past decade, rates in children ages 8-12 have increased.
The epidemic? Eating disorders and disordered eating. Twenty-two percent of adolescents exhibit disordered eating behaviors, according to a recent study by JAMA Pediatrics. Disordered eating lies on a spectrum between normal eating and an eating disorder. It may include symptoms and behaviors of eating disorders but at a lesser frequency or lower level of severity. Disordered eating can consist of restrictive, compulsive, irregular, or inflexible eating patterns.
One of the most common forms of disordered eating is dieting. One in every four dieters will go on to develop a full-blown eating disorder. Students who struggle live in all body sizes. You cannot necessarily tell just by looking at someone if that individual is struggling — because the disease most commonly lies in the brain when it is hyper-focused on food and body. Fortunately, students need not have a diagnosis to benefit from intervention.
What can be done?
Educators must rethink current lesson plans and the language used in the school setting. It turns out that well-intended lessons can backfire: According to Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, 14% of youth who were admitted for medical treatment of anorexia nervosa between January 2015 and February 2020 reported that receiving health education was a trigger for their eating disorder.
That’s why, in addition to redefining and restructuring health education in our schools, we must communicate how destructive dieting can be — and persuade students to say a firm ‘no’ to diets. We need to shift student mindsets by teaching them a better way to approach nutrition and mental health in a sustainable, flexible and realistic manner.
Students are quite capable of learning that we all have choices with regard to our mindsets, behaviors, and actions. A prevention program is the first effective step in helping to pinpoint potential problems early and ultimately save lives.
Inclusive nutrition education encompasses five key areas: navigating social media misinformation, encouraging mindful eating, building body image resilience, reducing weight stigma and bullying and supporting self-care behaviors. Through the “Students, Don’t Diet” professional development presentations and workshops, educators have expressed a stronger sense of confidence with the student population.
Schools cannot do this alone. Parents, pediatricians, and mental-health professionals must all be educated, too; it needs to be a collaborative effort.
Implementing these kinds of prevention programs is a key strategy to help combat this crisis, and it can’t wait: Our children’s future depends on it.