Healthy Student Bodies: Sending the Right Message

I’m in the weight room. The boy next to me finishes his set at the bench, then sits up and shakes a plastic drink container containing an odd, pink-colored liquid. He tilts his head back and drinks it down. The next day, I overhear a group of girls chatting after class; one shares that her father said she looked fat upon her return home for break, and another mentions her mother is putting her on a diet because she weighs too much.  My 15-year-old son, who started wrestling this winter, is comparing his six-pack to his sister’s. He says she has more flab over the muscle; she’s 13 and now wants to get a flatter belly by the summer:  She says to me, “Mom, I’m going to be a vegetarian.”  What is a health teacher/faculty member or mother supposed to say in these situations?  What I could have said:

Response 1: Why are you wasting your money on that protein powder? It won’t be absorbed in the way you want it to, and therefore, won’t help you on the intended road to buff-ness.

Response 2: I’m sorry your father said that. Maybe he’s not sensitive to female adolescent development and the natural body changes that are occurring at this stage of the game?

Response 3: Does your Mom know what a healthy weight is for you?  You are incredibly busy and need adequate calories to fuel your daily activities: you don’t need to diet!

Response 4:  Sweetheart, you’re beautiful the way you are.  Becoming vegetarian does not automatically facilitate weight loss or change your body shape.  Let’s talk about eating a healthy variety and balance of food.

As parents, we want our children to be happy and feel confident, particularly about their bodies.  Our goal, personally and for our children, is to have a positive body image.  By definition:

Body-image is part of self-image. Our body image includes more than what we look like or how others see us. It also refers to how we think, feel, and react to our own self-perceived physical attributes. Body-image development is affected by cultural images and the influence of family, peers, and others.  A positive body-image contributes to enhanced psychological adjustment (less depression, positive self worth, life satisfaction, less interpersonal anxiety, fewer eating disorders).”*1

For many of our children, body image is directly related to body size and composition.  They tend to link control over their body size to what they eat even though genetics play the primary role in body composition. They get many mixed messages about what they should be fueling their bodies with; specifically about what foods are “good” and which are “bad.”

The message we are sending here on campus is summarized by our “Live Clean/Eat Dirty” campaign, which is an initiative to promote sustainable eating by assembling an intake of food that mirrors Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate*2.  We specifically focus on four nutritional goals for our students:

1.  Eat healthy and varied sources of protein. Protein is the building block needed for healthy brain and body development.  Protein provides sustained energy. Eating a better protein package has a positive environmental impact!

2.  Eat whole grains.  Carbs provide energy!  Whole grain carbs help regulate blood sugar levels, provide minerals and vitamins, and provide fiber for a healthy digestive track. Whole (intact) grains like wheat, oats, barley, brown rice, legumes and many fruits and vegetables provide sustained energy for learning, athletics and your relationships.

3.  Eat healthy fats.  Fats provide energy, supply your body with essential fatty acids and enable you to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K from food.   Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids makes up part of the membranes of the cells in your body and are necessary for proper skin function. Healthy fats help manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.  Fats help us feel full and keep our blood sugar in balance (improving daily energy and reducing risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease in the future).

4.  Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.  Most veggies and fruits are great sources of healthy carbs, protein and fats; they keep the body supplied with energy and help rebuild cells, and are also great sources of fiber (helps regulate digestion), phytochemicals (aids immunity), vitamins and minerals.  Veggies help improve circulation, boost your immune system, and detoxify your body.

Encouraging a balanced intake of nutrients provides the benefits listed above but also helps our students maintain a healthy weight (which should be determined by a medical professional) and increases the changes of a positive body image.  Our school dietician, Kelly Stellato, says a healthy weight is any weight that someone can maintain naturally without eating restrictively or compulsively and when participating in adequate physical activity. For many people this ends up being around the 50th percentile of body mass index.*3  Eating restrictively or dieting is actually the main cause of obesity later in life and the number one predictor of evolving eating disorder behaviors.

Please consider positive body image messages at home; encourage your children to accept and love who they are, just the way they are. Challenge misleading assumptions about body appearance and focus on what they can do with their bodies, and how they are feeling, not what their bodies look like. Avoid making negative body comments such as “Wow, you’ve put on weight,” or “What on earth are you eating there?” or “Let’s go carb-free while you are home so we can both lose a few pounds.” If you are concerned about your child’s weight talk to a professional such as your child’s doctor or a registered dietitian without your child being present. Ask if you should be concerned. If your medical provider feels there is reason to address your child’s changing body, make an appointment for your child to be seen. “I’ve made an appointment for us to work with a dietitian. I want to make sure you are getting healthy amounts of nutrients while you are at school” is a much better approach than, “You’re getting pudgy, I think you should watch what you eat.”

Positive role modeling and basic nutrition education make a difference.  If you have any questions, please reach out to us:  Kris Loftus and Kelly Stellato.

*1 my.clevelandclinic.org/healthy_living/mental_health/hic_fostering_a_positive_self-image.aspx

*2 hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate

*3 cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/childrens_bmi/about_childrens_bmi.html

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