An Open Letter to Educators on nutrition documentaries ....
As the school year draws to a close, I urge you to reconsider showing Food Inc. or [INSERT NUMEROUS OTHER NUTRITION DOCUMENTARIES] this year. While the intention is never to do harm when assigning these projects, these fear mongering documentaries have the potential to negatively impact our students.
One of the major problems with this film is the use of fear as a form of persuasion. While we know the food industry can be improved upon, we can educate and discuss improvements without invoking fear about food and our bodies. Films like these can be very dangerous because they contain bits and pieces of facts among inaccurate and exaggerated information. It is clear these films utilize persuasive techniques to attract viewers, but this is rarely discussed. These films needs to be viewed critically. Unfortunately, many who view these documentaries, especially teens, are blinded by this very shock factor.
When looking at these films, it is just as important to examine the message conveyed as it is to look at the message viewers are taking away. The problematic takeaways from Food Inc. that I frequently encounter as dietitian are: fear about non-organic food, a complete lack of trust of our bodies, avoidance of animal protein and/or confusion on how to navigate our current food landscape. These takeaways often lead teens feeling confused about how to fuel their body. I have encountered numerous teens (with and without eating disorders) who have drastically shifted their diet immediately following this being shown in school. Why is this is a problem?
Many teens who view this film are unaware of a body’s nutritional needs during adolescence- a period of rapid growth and development. There are increased needs for energy, protein, and iron, just to name a few. Cutting out animal proteins without proper education on a vegetarian diet can result in deficiencies and even malnutrition.
Changes to a diet need to be done with a professional, especially because dietary restriction in adolescents is correlated with disordered eating and malnutrition. Changing the diet, may not be the reason this documentary was assigned, but it is too often what happens after viewing this documentary. We are rarely screening classrooms for risk factors for eating disorders and malnutrition before showing these films, nor are we discussing the changes in the diet following these assignments.
Even if the assignment encourages students to distinguish the films facts from the propaganda, I do not endorse using this particular documentary because topics may impact those predisposed to eating disorders or currently struggling with an eating disorder in your classrooms. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2.7% of teens are suffering from eating disorders. Additionally, the peak age of on-set for eating disorders is adolescence, which makes it critical time for both prevention and identification of disordered behaviors. It is likely someone in your classroom will either have an eating disorder or will suffer from an eating disorder during their lifetime. In my professional experience, watching Food Inc. has been cited by far too many patients as a critical factor in developing and/or maintaining their eating disorder. The cause of an eating disorder is multifactorial. However, when a student has a predisposition for an eating disorder, viewing a food documentary can trigger disordered eating. Adolescents are very vulnerable to messages about nutrition and body image. Viewing documentaries, like Food Inc., at such a critical time can be dangerous. It is essential we frame any nutrition education in ways that reduce harm. We must utilize other methods to teach the curriculum covered in the film that contain less triggering content and employs the research done on childhood feeding.
I am a huge proponent of connecting children and teens to the food they are eating, but I believe in utilizing evidenced based approaches. Mindful and intuitive eating skills help us connect to our food without increasing shame, guilt, or disordered eating. Using fear and restriction do not result in a healthy relationship with food. I urge you to reconsider the use of this film in any future lessons. As a teacher, I know you are concerned with mental and physical wellbeing of your students. I am eager to continue this conversation as we work to create curriculum to better serve adolescent nutrition needs.
Thank you for all the work you do. I love that schools are working to improve health and wellbeing and am happy to collaborate on ways to provide nutrition education that also prevent eating disorders and promote a development of a healthy relationship with food.
MS, RD, CEDRD, LD/N