This page supports schools and educators with tips and resources to help students feel good about food, eating, and their bodies, while also protecting against harmful eating behaviours and attitudes.
Information for schools
Helping children develop a positive relationship with food and body is critical to supporting social, mental, and physical well-being. When children feel good about themselves they are also more likely to engage with health promoting opportunities. However, it can be challenging, given that negative messages and beliefs related to food, body shape and size are so common in our society. This narrow view of health, also known as diet culture, promotes the idea that only thin bodies are “healthy” and that certain ways of eating are “good” or “bad.” Diet culture can impact how we engage with food and our bodies, as well as the approaches used to develop nutrition and health curricula. This is a growing concern for individuals working with school-aged children given that:
- 40 to 60 per cent of children and youth report being unhappy with their bodies
- 19 to 55 per cent of youth report engaging in risky dieting behaviours
- Weight-based bullying is one of the most common forms of bullying in schools
- Poor body image may lead to feelings of shame, low self-worth, and unhappiness, and is a risk factor for the development of disordered eating
Health and nutrition conversations and education needs to be delivered carefully to ensure it is safe and meaningful for students. Schools are an important setting for role modeling body respect, positive relationships with food, and thinking critically about diet culture messages.
Tips and resources for schools and educators
- When discussing bullying, include examples of students being excluded from a group or being teased because of their body shape or size.
- Watch for and address weight-based bullying, and help students identify the harms.
- Challenge students’ assumptions and negative beliefs about people based on their body size or appearance.
- Reflect on your own internalized weight bias. Most people have biases that they are unaware of.
- Include weight-based discrimination in your school’s anti-bullying policy.
- Confronting body-based harassment tip sheet for teachers (PDF) – National Eating Disorders and Treatment Center (NEDIC)
- Mental health and weight bias in schools (PDF) – Ontario Dietitian in Public Health
- Take the weight implicit association test – Project Implicit
- Help students build a positive relationship with food and their bodies, regardless of size. All students benefit from opportunities to eat well and engage in enjoyable movement and activities that promote mental wellness.
- Do not talk about weight (yours or others), weight loss diets, or calories. Instead, focus on inner qualities and all the amazing things that bodies can do.
- Do not use weight loss as a motivator for eating well or being active. If discussing activity, focus on benefits such as having fun, learning new skills, reducing stress, and better sleep.
- Avoid measuring or collecting student height, weight or body mass index (BMI) in schools. These parameters are impacted by many factors, not just lifestyle, and their collection has been shown to cause harm.
- Backgrounder for “The journey from dieting to healthy eating” (PDF) – Vancouver Coastal Health
- Facts and concerns about school-based BMI screening, surveillance and reporting (PDF) - Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC)
- Teach children that healthy bodies come in many shapes and sizes. All bodies are good bodies and deserve to be treated with respect.
- Promote an inclusive and respectful school culture that celebrates body diversity. Expose students to diversity in curricula including body size, physical abilities, and race.
- Talk about puberty in supportive ways. Youth are especially at risk for developing poor body image due to the many physical, emotional, and social changes they experience during puberty. Normalizing increases in weight, body fat, and appetite can help them feel more at ease and prevent risky behaviours.
- Teach media literacy and support students to think critically about diet culture messages (e.g. “good” foods and “bad” foods) and unrealistic body ideals.
- Let’s make our children’s school and activities free of diet talk and body positive (PDF) – Sunny Side Up Nutrition
- Promoting a positive body image for students – Northern Health Stories
- Promoting positive body image through comprehensive school health (PDF) – Jessie’s Legacy
See the teaching about food and nutrition page for more resources and lesson plans to promote positive body image and media literacy in the classroom.
- Follow the “Division of reasonability in feeding”: let students decide how much, in what order, and whether to eat, from the foods adults have provided.
- Never take away food or comment negatively on a student’s lunch. This can lead to students feeling shame and anxiety about the foods they eat, or the foods families have included in their lunch.
- Help students feel more relaxed while eating, by making mealtimes about connection, rather than focusing on what students are (or are not) eating.
- Avoid food labels such as “good” vs “bad”, “healthy” vs “unhealthy”, and “green light” vs “red light” foods. Food and eating is much more complex. Labelling food in this way disconnect children from their bodies and eating experiences, and hinders their ability to learn to like new foods in the long term.
- Talk about food in a neutral, non-judgemental manner and provide positively framed food education. For example, refer to foods by their actual names, rather than using terms such as “junk”, ‘treat”, “growing foods” or “sometimes foods.”
- Nurturing healthy eaters in the classroom (PDF) – Vancouver Coastal Health
- Supporting healthy eating at school: What we say and do matters (webinar video) – Vancouver Coastal Health and Northern Health
- Talking to kids about food (PDF) – Northern Health
If you suspect that a student may be dealing with an eating disorder, take steps to connect them with appropriate supports. See guidelines for school staff: Helping a student with suspected eating disorder (Vancouver Costal Health and Jessie’s Legacy).