Fixing K-12 health education

So, I think we can all admit that, as children, we learned more about puberty from Urban Dictionary than we ever did from the gym coach—ahem, I mean the health teacher. Not to mention nutrition; I vaguely remember some mention of the now-obsolete food pyramid coupled with questionable recommendations to drink skim milk and eat a lot of pasta. K-12 health education is fraught with misinformation, and it leaves out integral aspects of wellbeing which are necessary for children to form healthy relationships with food and their bodies.
In my first-ever health class (fifth grade), boys and girls were sent to separate rooms. While girls talked shop about menstruation, boys were instructed on how to apply deodorant. I have several issues with this form of teaching: firstly, why do we need to separate kids based on gender? This assumes that all girls have the same anatomy and health concerns that are wholly separate from the boys’, and vice versa. It completely ignores transgender kids and reinforces the notion that there is no need to learn about bodies that are different from our own. There’s a reason my twelve-year-old brother refuses to say the word ‘vagina’ and shrinks from discussions of PMS. We need to implement an all-gender elementary health class that reduces stigma of normal phases of development and is inclusive of all bodies.
Our discussion of weight in relation to health also desperately needs to change for the better. In tenth grade, I recall calculating my predicted surface area, body type based on fat distribution, and of course, Body Mass Index (BMI), or, informally, the Bulls*** Measuring Index. I can now say with confidence, none of those things reflected my health. Not even a little bit. They could not measure my activity level, my social relationships or my mental health. What they did do was make me feel terrible about myself, isolated me from my thinner friends and made me even more determined to lose weight by whatever means necessary.
By teaching children how to calculate BMI, we are equating health to body weight. Your health cannot be measured in how much you weigh. Wellbeing is more complex and multifactorial than a number on a scale. And teaching children that their bodies are something to be ashamed of and controlled, creates the perfect storm for chronic dieting, body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.
Nutrition is a complicated subject, and I don’t expect any health teacher to get it right 100 percent of the time. But as I attempt to navigate adulthood, I realize more and more that I was given diet advice in the guise of real nutritional science.
As a child, I was taught to minimize this, reduce that and eat those only in moderation. Notice a pattern here? That advice is based on the concept of dietary restriction, eating less or cutting out certain foods completely. Restriction is unsustainable in the long-term because it triggers a starvation response in your body. This heightens cravings, affects mood and attempts to push you into finally eating (and likely bingeing on) the foods you’ve been depriving yourself of during the restrictive period.
This is not a normal or healthy way to eat, and it fuels a vicious cycle that can become disordered for many people. Instead of learning how to diet, I would have liked to learn about the different types of fuel my body uses for energy and which foods could help provide that energy so I could feel and perform my best. It would have also been helpful to hear that food has value beyond what it does for my body: it can be part of one’s culture, the centerpiece of a celebration or an expression of love.
K-12 health class could benefit from greater inclusivity and a serious upgrade in evidence-based curriculum. We should leave kids feeling confident and prepared, not ashamed and stigmatized. Sex education is a whole other can of worms—stay tuned.