By Jessica Boubker
Eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of any mental illness, second only to opioid overdose. 1 in 5 women (19.7%) and 1 in 7 men (14.3%) will suffer from an eating disorder. Not only are eating disorders potentially life-threatening, eating disorders can carry devastating long-term consequences on both physical and mental “health, productivity, and relationships.” These disorders can also be indications of co-occurring mental conditions that will worsen over time without proper treatment. Early screening and intervention are imperative to addressing and abating these long-term effects. Congress can address this difficult public health problem by passing the Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act.
Eating disorders can affect all individuals regardless of body size, age, gender, or race; however, BIPOC teenagers, LGBTQ+ individuals, disabled individuals, overweight individuals, athletes, and veterans are at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. The majority of eating disorders develop during adolescence and young adulthood, with high recurring rates later in life. Targeted prevention efforts for young individuals remain critical to reduce eating disorder-related mortality and complications.
Disordered eating and body dissatisfaction, common risk-factors associated with eating disorders, are highly prevalent among children and young adults. Expectations to be thin begin at a very young age: 42% of 1st to 3rd grade girls desire to be thinner and 81% of 10 year old children report fears of being fat. Subsequently, dieting begins at a very young age: 46% of children ages 9-11 report that they are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets; 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in dangerous behaviors such as “crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives”; and 91% of college-aged women report dieting to control their weight. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourages young people from dieting, especially without active involvement and support from family and clinical supervision by a pediatrician. Studies show that dieting is counterproductive to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and “teenagers with no weight problem will gain weight due to weight loss attempts.” Most importantly, however, dieting can predispose individuals to eating disorders and reinforce the “normative discontent” around body dissatisfaction that greatly increases maladaptive health behaviors and psychological stress.
Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act
To address this alarming public health issue, Representative Alma Adams (D-NC-12) and Representative Vicky Hartzler (R-MO-04) introduced the bipartisan Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act of 2020 in the U.S. House of Representatives on May 6, 2020. The bill is currently referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor. If passed, this Act will require school districts to develop school nutrition programs and physical activity programs in a way that will help prevent disordered eating and eating disorders. The goal of the Act is to improve overall health outcomes for all children. In the bill’s press release, Representative Adams noted the urgency of passing this legislation stating that “[a]s students across the country face disruptions, stress, and anxiety due to COVID-19, all of which exacerbate mental illnesses like eating disorders, the need for this legislation grows increasingly clear.”
The Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act has the support of the National Eating Disorders Association (“NEDA”), the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting those affected by eating disorders. Chevese Turner, NEDA’s Chief Strategy & Policy Officer, advocated for the legislation stating that it “is an important step forward in eating disorders prevention and early identification efforts . . . Schools are uniquely positioned to play a part in this increasingly significant public health issue that has the second highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder and will affect over 30 million people in their lifetime in the US alone.”
The bill specifically requires local educational agencies that participate in school lunch or breakfast programs to “include goals for reducing disordered eating in children of all sizes in their local school wellness policies.” The Department of Agriculture will be required to provide information and technical assistance to local educational agencies, school food authorities, school health professions, and state educational agencies. This assistance must promote eating disorder prevention, encourage eating disorder screening, and help establish healthy school environments. One of the most important aspects of this bill is that in developing, implementing, and reviewing school wellness policies, local educational agencies must involve registered dietitians and licensed mental health professionals.
The Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act could be an important catalyst to implementing eating disorder prevention and screening programs in schools across the United States. It is vital that the bill maintains its requirement that registered dietitians and licensed mental health professionals be involved in the creation of school policies. In addition, for the intended goals of this legislation to be successful, these registered dietitians and licensed mental health professionals need to specialize in eating disorder treatment, a highly delicate and nuanced field.
Not all dietitians and mental health professionals understand the severity of weight-bias in the treatment of eating disorders. Studies show that even gentle conversations discussing “healthy eating” can lead children to interpret the message very strictly leading to the adoption of rigid rules regarding good foods versus bad foods. Programs and policies developed to address disordered eating and eating disorders need to be carefully crafted to avoid unintentional consequences stemming from discussing weight, eating, and exercise in a way that could lead a child to develop maladaptive behaviors. Prevention efforts should take the focus away from weight and healthy eating, and instead focus on joyful movement and body acceptance.
The Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act is a positive step towards addressing a significant public health problem. The Act could help a large portion of the next generation avoid developing a life-threatening and devastating mental illness. It is imperative, however, that clinicians specializing in eating disorders remain a significant part of the conversation when schools attempt to implement these prevention programs. Discussing weight, eating, or exercise is a delicate subject that can sometimes cause more harm than good. With the right training and policies in place, schools can change the narrative around weight and body image and make a positive impact on the overall health of its students. The Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act can help make this vision a reality.