Dear Secondary Teachers: You Can Prevent Triggering an Eating Disorder

Updated: Nov 29, 2021

Dear Educator,

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Jen and I’m a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and I specialize in working with people who have eating disorders.

First, let me say thank you for choosing the profession that you have. I think about all the amazing teachers who have helped lead me (or perhaps pushed me!) where I am today and I know that I am so grateful for humans who invest in those who want to learn. I come from a family of six teachers, so I have heard about how thankless it can be, how administration doesn’t always support in the way that you’re wanting, and how many hours you put in behind the scenes. I’ve also heard how rewarding it is when a student gets it. How you celebrate alongside them and feel like it’s your victory as well…because it is!

I feel similarly about the clients who I work with. They are all such incredible people and it tears my heart a little when I hear their stories and the daily challenges they face. A lot of my clients are young adults, managing school, friends, jobs, SATs, AP exams, sports, the musical, and more…all while living with an eating disorder. Many tell me that they know how supportive their teachers are, and how they're happy that you care about them. At the same time I've heard from a decent amount of my clients that they feel their teachers are approaching things in a way that triggers their eating disorder…or perhaps have triggering content in their curriculum.

Here are some statistics to help put it into perspective.

  • 95% of people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12-25. (Source)

  • Eating disorders have the HIGHEST risk of death of any mental illness. (Source)

  • It's estimated that 10% of the population has an eating disorder (although many resources highlight that this number doesn't account for under-reporting, and specifically under-reporting in males). (Source)

That last statistic is the one that gets me. If you have twenty kids in your class, there are at least two who have or will experience an eating disorder. You wouldn't be a teacher if you didn't care about the students who you instruct. And how are you expected to know? I would hazard a guess that there wasn't a lot of education around eating disorders in your undergraduate or graduate curriculum, and it's not something that receives a lot of state-wide attention, let alone district attention. Additionally you get a million and one things thrown at you on a regular basis. When I started writing this piece I asked several friends who are teachers to read through it (because I wanted to be cognizant of all opinions on this matter) and they shared that this year was the hardest teaching has been in awhile. My sincerest hope is that you can trust I'm on your side and on the side of my clients. I'm writing to you today to highlight some of the things that I've heard from my clients, bringing them to your attention as opportunities to create an environment that decreases the chances someone with an eating disorder will feel emotionally elevated as well as decreasing the likelihood that a student develops an eating disorder. I'm here on behalf of them and at the same I'm also here to support you as you learn more about this.

The following topics can be challenging for those who are struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating.

· weight (both weight loss and weight gain)

· comparison of bodies (ex. the "obesity epidemic" or "she's skinnier than him")

· categorizing foods with superlatives "the best choice" or "a bad food"

· calorie information (of specific foods)

· food likes/dislikes

· amount eaten/taken, etc.

· exercise metrics (time, distance, etc.)/burning calories

Here are some examples of ways to approach the above topics in a more neutral way:

Weight - try and use examples of this outside weight loss, or consider having the subject of the question be non-human. Avoid talking about what "normal" weights are. Normal weights are different for everyone and adolescents are OFTEN above "normal" BMI...because their measurements should be taken from growth charts, not BMI. Additionally dependent on the age of the adolescent, they may need to gain weight in order to support a growth spurt resulting in height, or even pubertal growth.

  • Example: Translate the following sentence into Spanish "Paul is a boy and needs to gain weight to grow taller."

  • Example: A camel weighed 100#. Then he drank water and he weighed 110#. What was the weight of the water the camel drank?

Comparison of Bodies - Try to reflect on actions that can impact someone's health, not their physical state of being. As mentioned above, adolescents often need to gain weight in order to go through puberty. Encouraging movement, adequate sleep, fluids, etc. can promote health even more than a shift in weight, with recent research supporting this. Click HERE for more. If there are vocab words around this, try and use them either in definitions or in conjugation questions.

  • Example: Conjugate "maigrir" for all subjects. ("Magrir" means to lose weight in French.)

Categorizing Foods - Encourage balancing foods and incorporating variety. I recognize that your state curriculum may require you to have your students sort foods, at the same time there are ways to present foods so that there isn't an intense fear created around them.

  • Example: "Every food can be enjoyed, how can we enjoy a balance of different foods?"

  • Example: "What foods provide more iron?"

Calorie Information - Unless it's required to be included in the curriculum, I'd recommend not using calorie information...especially in math classes. Instead of calculating the amount of calories in a food, or the amount of calories burned, try using something more neutral, i.e. food cost.

  • Example: Anna wants to make an apple pie. The recipe serves 8 people. It calls for 15 apples. Only 60% of the apples will be used in the pie (because the cores will be thrown out). Anna needs to serve 45 people. How many apples should she purchase?

Likes/Dislikes - Try to avoid asking questions around food. I've had clients tell me they know that their teacher is trying to connect with them, but it is challenging for them to admit that they might like a specific food in an individual setting with me, let alone having to announce it in public. This can exponentially increase anxiety. Try questions around values, enjoyable activities, and current TV shows they're watching.

  • Example: Instead of "what's your favorite Thanksgiving food?" you could ask "what's your favorite part of Thanksgiving?"

Amount Eaten/Taken - If you're choosing to share food in your classroom, refrain from commenting on a student taking or not taking any additional foods offered. Taking a piece of candy could be a big deal for them and something to be celebrated, by they may not want to do it in front of the class. Or they may be in a situation where they feel shame for taking something and don't want to be in the spotlight in class.

  • Example: "Jamie, do you want one? No? Okay." (Move on)

Exercise Metrics/Burning Calories - if it's necessary to use these metrics consider using animals. If not, consider something more neutral, such as VO2 max or heart rate.

  • Example: A cheetah can run 60mph. The distance between Albany, NY and New York City, NY is 156.9. Assuming that the cheetah's speed decreases by 2% every hour it runs, how long will it take for the cheetah to run from Albany to NYC?

I hope this helped bring some attention to ways that would support a more safe environment for not only your students who may be struggling, but may decrease the risk that another student develops an eating disorder or disordered eating. Feel free to contact me with any questions or for support around transitioning lesson plans to be more neutral. I'm here for you.

Jen Haefele

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