Eating disorders are complex and life-threatening mental illnesses, and they’re on the rise. They affect all ages, genders, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and body shapes and sizes. Eating disorders exist on a continuum with disordered eating, and symptoms range from extreme restriction to binge eating and distorted body image. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), national surveys estimate that 30 million Americans will struggle with an eating disorder over the course of their lifetime.
Adolescents are at high risk as they undergo extreme physical and psychological changes accompanied by extreme peer pressure. A study from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders found that 11% of high school students have a diagnosed eating disorder.
In society at large, there’s a thin ideal — equating positive characteristics with thinness. This leads to weight stigma, teasing, bullying, depression, poor body image, and low self-esteem. Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics found dieting to be the most important predictor of eating disorder development. The International Food Information Council Foundation 2018 Food and Health Survey showed that about one-third of adults were dieting, and weight loss was the most common reason.
Creating a positive dining environment for students is essential to combat the constant barrage of messaging about weight loss and appearance. Adults influence students’ food preferences, eating habits, portion sizes, nutritional intake, and attitudes about food and body image. Children as young as 5 can develop a negative body image, per Common Sense Media. To create a welcoming space, start by reflecting on the attitudes in your community and being mindful of what people are saying with and around students. Don’t focus on the perceived healthfulness of food or on body size.
You can create a positive environment now by taking these steps:
- Celebrate food as a community.
- Dissuade body talk and diet culture.
- Limit access to nutritional information to medically appropriate needs.
- Provide faculty and staff with professional development about eating disorders.
At SAGE, we recognize the risks that exist in our communities, and we have a comprehensive eating disorder prevention and reporting program in place. For more than 10 years, we’ve partnered with the Eating Recovery Center of Maryland (formerly The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt) to develop training materials for all our Team Members. Everyone at SAGE completes annual training about how to recognize warning signs that someone might be struggling with an eating disorder and work with school administration to connect the person with the help they need.
We stopped posting calories or other nutritional information on our public menus when we started The SAGE Spotlight Program® in 2005. For more details about the negative effects that nutritional information can have on at-risk community members, read “Why SAGE Doesn’t Post Calories in Schools.”
SAGE’s All Foods Fit philosophy encourages community members to focus on the cultural and social aspects of food, the enjoyment that comes from eating, and the nutrients food provides instead of thinking just about how it may make their bodies look physically. This philosophy encourages a positive relationship with food and honors all the ways food can provide nourishment.
The dining environment should promote positive nutritional habits for life, and it should also present an opportunity to explore and learn through food, to appreciate and enjoy many cultures’ cuisines, and to socialize and connect with others. Eating should be a positive, rewarding, and inclusive experience for everyone!