Harmful schoolyard eating habits putting kids at risk

Butterfly has seen an increase in the number of educators reaching out with concerns about students' problematic food behaviours at school.

Young Australians are continuing to be plagued by body image concerns, with distressing reports from parents and teachers supporting research that highlights the harmful eating behaviours that can lead to disordered eating.

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Butterfly Foundation, the national charity for all Australians impacted by eating disorders and body image issues, has seen a dramtic increase in the number of educators in both primary and secondary schools reaching out with concerns about students not eating during the school day, hiding, or throwing away food, being bullied for food choices, and other problematic food behaviours at school.

Helen Bird, Butterfly’s Manager of Education Services explains.

Although nutrition education and what to eat is an important part of the primary and secondary curriculum, less emphasis has been placed on how to eat and how to develop a positive and balanced relationship with food and eating.

“We’re repeatedly hearing about teenage friendship groups not eating at school, as well as a surge in playground dieting and ‘healthy eating clubs’ at school which can fuel competitive and comparative behaviours amongst young people. This culture of not eating at school can set young people up for negative long-term effects, even into adulthood, with associated poor body image being a significant risk factor for developing disordered eating and eating disorders,” Helen said.

Matthew, a lived experience carer, describes how his daughter and her friends were shamed by peers at school for what they were eating. “She was made to feel like an outsider or weird because she was eating at school. When she ate anything other than a salad, her friends would take a photo of her lunch and post it on social media to ‘salad shame’ her. This kind of behaviour contributed to my daughter developing an eating disorder and made me very concerned about the dangerous culture of disordered eating happening in schools”.

Commentary and judgement on other people’s foods – portion size, perceived ‘healthiness’, ethnic origins, even smell – can create a climate of food shaming and guilt. This in turn can lead to young people feeling self-conscious, creating body image issues, and ultimately causing teens to refrain from eating while at school and potentially restrict, binge eat, and/or engage in other compensatory behaviours.

Young Aussies are calling for help with body image issues

Butterfly’s recent Body Kind Youth Survey revealed that 8 in 10 teenagers agree schools need to do more to support positive body image yet only 1 in 3 recalled being given body image strategies at secondary schools, and only 1 in 5 at the primary level4.

Butterfly is calling on all educators to review their approaches to nutrition education and create positive body image environments at school. Butterfly’s annual free awareness initiative in September, Body Kind Schools provides tools and strategies to facilitate this. New activities have been added for 2023, that focus on encouraging a positive relationship with eating and ensuring no young person goes hungry at school due to shame and concerns about their body.

school lunch
© Monkey Business, Adobe Stock

Body Kind Schools is Australia’s largest annual positive body image movement for young people (aged 11 to 18 years) providing free and engaging activities to help young Australians find ways to be kind to their own body and to others. Free online resources include classroom activities, downloadable posters, videos, and workshops for educators. Schools are encouraged to sign up now to undertake activities during Body Kind month, in September, or whenever suits their curriculum.
For more information and to register now, visit Body Kind Schools.

Butterfly Foundation is the national charity for all Australians impacted by eating disorders and body image issues, and for the families, friends and communities who support them. Butterfly is on a mission to create a more ‘Body Kind’ Australia, where young people grow up treating their own bodies and all bodies with respect and kindness. Butterfly has been running school prevention and intervention programs for more than 17 years, supporting both primary and secondary schools to help kids thrive and learn to love their bodies from a young age.

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School News is not affiliated with any government agency, body or political party. We are an independently owned, family-operated magazine.

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