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No more BMI, diets or ‘bad’ foods


By Vivien Lewis

How many of us recall having to calculate our body-mass index (BMI) as children at school, prompting comparisons of our weight with that of our peers? Or perhaps we remember references to calories and diets in the classroom.

Now, in Australia children are educated about their bodies and what they eat, in a bid to prevent eating disorders.

Hundreds of references to terms including BMI, weight, calories and diets have been removed from school resources.

As a clinical psychologist specialising in the treatment of children and young people with body image and eating disorders, I welcome these changes. Given what we know about the links between weight stigma and the development of eating disorders, they’re long overdue.

People will often use words such as ‘fat’ and ‘guilt’ to cast shame over their own or others’ body size and food choices. On the flip side, the latest diets and other weight loss techniques are regularly hot topics of conversation among friends and colleagues.


Evidence shows this sort of talk around children and young people can be very damaging, in some cases contributing to the development of disordered eating. So in the school environment we need to be especially mindful of the language we use around people’s bodies and food.

Children learn about their bodies and nutrition when they start school, and this can be where a lot of misinformation (such as being fearful of certain foods because they’re deemed to be “bad” for us) and stigma begins.

We’ve known for a long time that early intervention through educating our children about well-being and positive mental health strategies is important to reduce the incidence of severe mental health conditions.

For eating disorders specifically, positive role modelling by adults around how we talk about our own and others’ bodies is crucial.

Teachers have an important role in educating our children about body respect and having a healthy relationship with their bodies and eating.

This can be achieved through actions including avoiding comments about people’s appearances, talking about food for its function in our bodies, and not attaching moral values (such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’) to the foods we eat. Indeed, the curriculum overhaul warns teachers against using these descriptors.

Learning about the importance of feeding our bodies and listening to our body’s needs is important for children.

We need to talk about food for its function in our bodies (such as carbohydrates for energy and fats for our brain). We should talk about foods we eat to help us concentrate and fuel our bodies as well as making us strong and helping us feel well.

The biggest challenge is that we live in an appearance-obsessed world with a diet culture and many people have a fixed way of thinking about food and bodies that’s hard to shift. As adults we have to work really hard to be better role models.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence



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