Friday, May 28, 2010

nutrition education overload and the power of peer pressure

My almost 5 yo daughter suddenly wants to be a vegetarian. I'm getting quizzed if her packed lunch has "meat" (see post on telling kids where meat comes from) or not. The swift onset of the power of peer pressure is awe inspiring. One of the "big girls" (6 year olds) is a vegetarian as is one of the teachers. I asked why she wanted to be a vegetarian and she said, "Because E is."
M loves meat, she loves turkey curry and a wide variety of foods. I assume (hope) that like Princesses and Care Bears this will be a passing interest.

I don't lie, but I don't really come out with all the details. "Is there meat?" To which I will answer, "You have noodles and ratatouille and steak and mushrooms," or, "Just shrimp today." That seems to satisfy her. When she casually said she wanted to be a vegetarian I simply said, "In this family, we eat meat." (Similarly how one can respond to the diet questions, "In this family, we don't diet, let's talk about this some more...")

I found out that at her school, they go around the table talking about what "protein" they have in their lunch. Makes me cringe. M has no idea what protein is. "Is melon protein?" She asked this morning after months of listing lunch-time proteins.

Kids don't need that much information. It's not her job to worry about whether she is eating protein or carbs. It is my job to balance her offerings, and her job to chose to eat them or not. (Division of Responsibility in feeding) Maybe later when she starts to think about planning meals and snacks we will talk about protein and food groups in the name of balance.

For children aged 3-6, a more appropriate questions might be, "What's your favorite thing in your lunch box today, or let's see how many colors we have in our lunch boxes today."

A big problem with nutrition education today is information overload, too much (often useless, even harmful info) too soon. One reader told of her 6 yo girl sitting at lunch counting calories after a nutrition class...

Are your children having "nutrition" lessons? What are they taking from them?


  1. I found myself in the position of having to try to explain to my six-year-old son what "Weight Watchers" was yesterday after we heard something about it on the radio. I was doing my level best not to let my anti-diet bias make it sound as if it is some kind of evil cabal. :)

  2. I find myself having to undo the "treat" concept my 4 yr old daughter applies to sweets. Thanks, Nana. She asks for a treat, and I ask her what a treat is. She replies with the name of a sweet. I say, "that isn't a treat honey, it's just food".
    Then I make sure that I serve a dessert type food for a meal in the next couple of meals.
    I also have to interrupt Nana when she starts going off about the kids getting a treat if they behave. :(

  3. I have to ask, have you spoken to her teacher about how inappropriate it is to be talking about protein to a 3-6 year old? I used to be a day care teacher and can't imagine ever talking to little ones this way. I'm with you on the whole favorite food or colors or shapes many OTHER things that can be talked about at lunch.

  4. My 4 year old daughter brought home a "learn to read" book from her day care a couple of weeks ago about being healthy. I was worried about what we would find in there and saw "eat lots of fruits and vegetables"--okay, I can live with that. And "get exercise"--okay. But there it was on page 4: "eat only a little bit of fat" Argh!

    My daughter was puzzled--what's fat? Why can't I eat it? I actually brought it up to her daycare teacher who agreed with me that it was not appropriate and the book has now been removed from the classroom.

    And then a week ago one of the teenage instructors at the ice skating rink told my daughter that if you eat a lot of pizza you'll get fat (I have no idea what the context was). Suddenly my intuitive eating child is questioning her choices.

    I'm livid that we live in a world where a 4 year old is already getting messages about what is and isn't acceptable in terms of body size and food choices! I honestly thought I wouldn't have to start fighting this until about age 10 (which is when I unfortunately discovered dieting).

    So the question is, when the topic comes up how do I talk about dieting in a way that does not encourage the behavior?


  5. My problem with teachers talking to kids about nutrition is: How much do these teachers actually know about the issue, and where are they getting this knowledge from? I hinted at this a few days ago in the thread about physical activity at school: sometimes, (some) teachers seem to be transmitting the kind of information about diet and exercise that can be found in the lifestyle pages of women's magazines. Not the best source! I find the idea of little boys and girls talking about "protein" disturbing because it seems to respond to the privileging of (lean) protein as the most important part of the meal, while fats and carbs are demonised and expected to be kept to a minimum (cue the grilled turkey breast and steamed vegetables). Kids should not be receiving the kind of nutritional advice that frequently comes after "Eat your way to a bikini body in two weeks".

  6. Lots to get back to. Michelle, I haven't talked to her teacher yet, but I will. She will have the same teacher next year, and they are truly wonderful, so I want to be very careful... But I will address it... it's tough as the feeding mom not to jump on every little thing and become a nuisance.

  7. Michellers, this is tough. How you talk to your daughter depends on her age and her maturity. I suppose in terms of the book that talked about "only eat a little fat" I would simply say, "that's an old book, and sometimes things in books are wrong. Fats are in foods, like butter and ice-cream and avocados and nuts and they taste yummy. Aren't we lucky we get to eat so many different foods!" and then move on. See if that works. I haven't had to directly address the diet yet, but at 4 would be very simple. Maybe "Diets are when people don't have enough food and they still feel hungry. Isn't that sad? Aren't we lucky we get to eat lots of different foods? it's good to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full." Then again, move on. I might put this as a main blog, and see how other moms and experts deal with this. I think I'll think about this issue and do an upcoming post... What do you think about my suggestions? Again, at age 4, less is more, being positive, and living as a role model...

  8. Oh, and I would talk to the ice-rink staff or the director of the program that by no means should ice-skating lessons EVER have to mention nutrition, food, body shape etc. I would be livid on that one too. If your daughter asks about the pizza issue, I would say, "Some kids who are big eat lots of pizza, some kids who are small eat lots of pizza."

  9. I've been reading your blog for awhile and on most points I completely agree with you. However, I'm a little confused as to why children 3-6 shouldn't have a little knowlegdge about the things they put in their mouths.

    Knowing whether or not a food is a protein is no different than knowing a peach is a fruit and a cucumber is a vegetable, in my opinion.

    I should add that my kids are now 12, 7 and 2 and the older 2 are avid label readers-mainly for food allergy sake, but also for fiber content and serving size.

  10. Hi Dorothy, thanks for wading in! I agree that a little knowledge is fine. My concern however is that most of the messages, such as, "Fish is a protein," or "eggs are protein" or chicken is protein," or "butter has fat" will become invariably linked with confusing shoulds and shouldn'ts which are not appropriate. As in, "you should eat less fat," or "eat more protein if you want to get strong, avoid being fat" etc. Young children should focus on experiential, joyful exposure to lots of different foods, maybe think about sorting them into the food groups as you are suggesting. When children get older it is appropriate to share more information. has a wonderful PDF about nutrition education that reviews the evidence. Does that make sense? The best nutrition education is to grow up in a home that enjoys a wide variety of foods and feeds with the division of responsibility and allows children to decide how much to eat based on internal cues of hunger and fullness.