In recent years, the classroom has become not only a place of learning but a battleground for the “obesity epidemic.” Government officials, including the former First Lady, Michelle Obama, are deeply concerned about the increasing number of youth in larger bodies (Letsmove.gov.).

However, this concern has created some policies that are troubling in their own ways. Schools have become a place where “obesity” is closely watched for and monitored, using restriction in order to stop children from consuming foods stigmatized to be “bad,” and possibly causing more problems in the long term.

Please note, the terms “obese” and “obesity” have been criticized as weight stigmatizing and imprecise. Although we use the terms to quote others’ work, “obese” and “obesity” are terms that Center For Discovery rejects.

Is Monitoring Food Consumption a Good Idea?

Of late, many schools are changing not only the food that they offer in the lunch line but the availability of snacks in vending machines. Soda and candy vending machines are becoming a thing of the past, and are being replaced with apple and milk vending machines. According to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) signed in 2010, even milk offered can only be skim or 1% (National Association of State Boards of Education, 2011). The goal here is to remove Foods of Minimal Nutrition Value (FMNV), considered to have a high amount of “empty calories,” and swap them out for foods that are considered to be of higher nutritional value. For example, with this line of thinking, soda would be replaced with juice.

This approach is meant to help limit the number of calories a child consumes and prevent weight gain. However, the restriction and removal of any food sends the message that some food is “bad” and the replacement food is “good.” Policies often use the terms “healthy” and “unhealthy,” but these can also be translated into good food and bad food as the message is clear: the foods that have been defined as healthy are good and those defined as unhealthy are bad.

The good food/bad food mentality is common among those of us with eating disorders or disordered eating. This mentality leads to fear and restriction of certain foods. Often the list of bad foods becomes bigger and bigger and can become so generalized (like, “all carbohydrates are bad”) that they interfere with needed nutrition, how we think, even our relationships. Sending the message that some foods are good and some foods are bad also reinforces judgment from others on those who eat the “bad foods,” and oftentimes, shame is accompanied with said judgments. And not only is shame uncomfortable, but it can also be a driving force behind negative self-esteem and eating disorder behaviors like bingeing, purging, compulsive exercise and restriction.

Foods of “Minimal Nutritional Value” in Debate

The very idea that there are “Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value” can be debated. School policies speak of “empty calories,” which by definition means that the food does not provide any nutrition. However, all food has nutritional value! Calories are units of energy (Metric Views, 2012), and are providing the body with the fuel it needs. Thus, all food with calories provides energy. The irony is that some states ban soda, which provides energy in the form of sugar, but they allow zero-calorie beverages (CSPI, 2007), which actually provide no “nutritional value” as they have zero units of energy.

There Are No Good or Bad Foods

All foods provide nutrition, energy, and nourishment. There are no good foods or bad foods, as all foods are acceptable and are fuel for the body. Many eating disorder treatment providers emphasize that All Foods Fit and recognize that categorizing foods as “good” or “bad” only leads to disordered eating patterns. Instead of teaching kids unbalanced and disordered eating patterns, schools should focus on listening to our bodies and seeking balance and variety. Soda is just as acceptable as juice and both should be consumed with an eye toward balance and variety. Only through variation can we receive all of the nutrients we need!

Kids and their parents need to be given the responsibility to balance their food intake instead of having their schools force them into a particular diet. As kids grow older, they may take these disordered ideas about food with them, along with shame, guilt and confusion about food. If you or someone you know is concerned about nutrition or weight, speak to a medical or dietary professional. Center for Discovery is here to provide help to anyone experiencing an eating disorder.

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