The Dangers of "Nutrition Education"


Over the course my twenty plus years as a dietitian, I have seen two scenarios many times. Parent of a 5-7-year-old is referred because of concerns about weight (under or over). At some point, parent turns to the child and says,

Scenario 1: "Are you listening to what she is saying?”

Scenario 2: "Well, when she/he is about 9 or 10, they will become concerned about how they look and make difference choices." 

Let's talk about scenario 1 in this post and I will follow-up with scenario 2 in a few days.

As a family dietitian, I am working mostly with adults and not kids. That isn't to say that I don't like working directly with kids, because I very much do!* But, I am always mindful that nutrition is full of abstract ideas and children don't begin to understand abstract ideas well until about 11 years old and won't get skilled at it until about 13 years old. Truth is, I hope that the younger children aren't listening to me. Indeed, in my practice I prefer that only the adults talk about nutrition concerns and children younger than 11 years old aren't present. Why? Because, some of what is said by adults regarding nutrition and weight can be harmful when interpreted through a child's mind (even more on that in Part 3) and it also interferes with the division of feeding responsibility between parent and child. 

Listening to a message is not enough, to improve nutrition one needs understand and act. Young children can readily repeat nutrition messages without fully understanding them. Therefore, a young child cannot really understand what I am saying! Parents mistake this ability state messages as understanding and being able to act on them. For example, a young child under five may be able to state that vegetables are "good for you" and not be able to name even one vegetable. Cause and effect statements like “you will be healthy if you eat vegetables” are not concrete. Starting around seven years old children can begin to categorize foods and start to understand cause and effect when it is concrete.

Indeed, this inability to understand abstract ideas is why we find videos of kids being interviewed about so funny! (Think Jimmy Fallon and Art Linkletter) Check out this video of a dad interviewing his three and six-year-old about food.

Also, young children cannot “reverse” their thinking and don’t understand change, particularly cause and effect. For example, a child around 11 years old can interpret “If I drink too much soda, I will gain weight” (a lot of soda = weight gain) to also mean “If I drink less soda, I won’t gain weight.” (NOT a lot of soda = NOT weight gain). A young child is still developing their sense of the future, let alone reserve cause and effect that has results in the future. A younger child isn’t ready to understand what I am saying, let alone act on it. for both parents and children.

What does this mean? Children cannot make feeding decisions, because they don’t understand nutrition and the consequences of foods choices. When it comes to eating, parents decide what, when, and where to eat and children decide how much and whether to eat. Ellyn Satter, dietitian and family therapist, refers to this as the Division of Responsibility in Feeding.  Misjudging a child's ability to understand understand nutrition advice can be very frustrating As a child grows and mentally matures, parents can begin to share some responsibilities,. Keep in mind that it really isn’t until about 11 to 13 years old that a child can start to understand abstract ideas, thus fully participate in a nutrition counseling session.

What do you think? What frustrates you about talking you kids about nutrition? What has been fun? Has your child said anything funny about where food comes from? 





*I am working on nutrition and chocolate classes for elementary-aged kids! Stay tuned.