Healthy Eating | Ophea Teaching Tools

    Healthy Eating

    What Is Healthy Eating?

    Healthy eating means consuming a variety of foods from the four food groups described in Canada’s Food Guide. These foods — that contain protein, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals — will provide the nutrients needed to keep you healthy, give you energy, and make you feel great. Fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, whole grains, lower-fat milk and milk products, fish and lean meats should all be eaten often. In contrast, it is important to limit processed foods and drinks, especially those that are high in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium.[1]  Healthy eating also means eating the recommended amount of food for your age, sex, and level of physical activity. 

    Healthy Eating in Schools

    By the time children reach four and five years of age, they spend much of their day in schools. So, it makes sense that schools are important places for them to learn about healthy eating. If children don't know how to make healthy food choices, they can’t make them.  That being said, students also require critical thinking skills to make smart decisions about food and a supportive environment in which to do so. 

    There are many elements that help make a comprehensive school health approach successful.  Two are particularly important.  First, committed educators should be equipped with quality teaching resources that not only correspond to the Ontario Ministry of Education curriculum and policy, but also provide fundamental content on healthy eating and include activities that offer students opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills. 

    Second, children deserve to be educated in supportive environments — those which help rather than hinder their efforts to eat healthy foods. Initiatives like the Ontario School Food and Beverage Policy (Policy/Program Memorandum No. 150/PPM150) can improve the "food landscape" at schools simply by changing what is available for purchase. By providing students with healthier food choices, the Policy may help encourage students to consume more nutritious foods while simultaneously discouraging them from eating foods that contain excessive amounts of fat, sugar, and sodium. This is part of a larger effort to develop healthier learning environments for Ontario students. 

    Creating an Inclusive Environment

    When teaching about healthy eating, it is essential for educators to demonstrate sensitivity and good judgment.  Children and youth, like all people, will have relationships with food that are complex. One reason children avoid foods is because of allergies or sensitivities. When learners have serious, or even life-threatening allergies to food, their eating experiences are significantly altered. While almost any food can trigger an allergic response, studies have shown that between 80 to 90 % of food allergies in children involve cow's milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, tree nuts, or fish.[2]  Since many of these foods are considered good choices for healthy eating, it is easy to see how learners with allergies may be concerned about getting the nutrients they require. As such, educators should reassure learners that they can still have healthy diets, even when allergies prevent them from eating certain foods. One way to do this is to emphasize that vitamins and nutrients found in these foods are also present in many others. Consider using Canada’s Food Guide to help learners find alternative foods that fall into the applicable category.

    Culture also plays a significant role in our relationships with food. In every culture, food is eaten for many reasons other than hunger: It can provide comfort and security; it can be a symbol of hospitality or social status; or it can hold religious significance. Culture influences what and how we eat, as well as how we prepare and serve our food.[3] Just as some learners avoid foods due to allergies, others may not eat foods from all four food groups because of family, cultural, or religious reasons. 

    Careful consideration should be paid to the ways educators talk about food and nutrition.  It is important that they do not make learners feel that one value system or food practice is superior to another, and that no foods, food groups, or eating practices are criticized. Educators must avoid making assumptions about students based on their country of origin, culture, or religion. On the contrary, educators need to create an inclusive environment by recognizing and celebrating both the wonderful variety of foods consumed by their learners, and the multitude of ways those foods are enjoyed.

    The Ontario Ministry of Education’s Health and Physical Education curriculum guidelines clearly outline that students should learn to examine their food choices and make decisions while working within the parameters they can control.[4] This has some significant implications for educators. Educators must be aware that learners have variable amounts of control over the food they eat at home and bring to school. Both the kinds of food and the amounts available at home will dictate how a child eats. In particular, young children, and those who live in poverty, may have very little control over their diets — and they may not be able to eat healthy foods every day. Children who live in poverty often eat less healthy foods than their more affluent counterparts.[5]  Fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive and may be out-of-reach for many families. For these reasons, educators must be respectful and use sensitivity when teaching about healthy eating.

    The Role of Teachers and Educators

    Healthy eating is a cornerstone of our general health and is linked to the prevention of many chronic diseases. Nutrition education can help kids develop lifelong healthy eating attitudes and behaviours.[6] When we establish healthy eating patterns in our early years, we set ourselves on a path for overall health and well-being.

    Educators and teachers play a critical role in nutrition education. If teachers talk about healthy eating with confidence and sensitivity, while also making healthy food choices themselves, they can be terrific role models.[6] When teachers create nurturing learning environments in the implementation of Ontario’s Health and Physical Education curriculum, they not only assist learners in gaining skills and knowledge with regard to healthy eating, but they also empower their learners to make healthier food choices. Children need opportunities to practise critical thinking about nutrition, so they learn to recognize factors (media, friends, culture) that influence their own eating decisions. This, in turn, encourages learners to develop a sense of personal responsibility about their nutrition. 

    Canada’s Food Guide

    Canada’s Food Guide is just that — a guide to healthy eating for Canadians. It is based on a wide range of scientific evidence including nutrient standards and the role of nutrition in preventing chronic disease. It outlines both how much food we need as well as what types of foods are best for our health. Canada’s Food Guide has been revised to include foods eaten by people from many countries and cultural backgrounds. It now reflects Canada’s cultural diversity rather than simply outlining the food and dietary practices of the general Canadian population. If we follow the suggestions in Canada’s Food Guide, we can make sure our food choices meet the daily requirements for vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, as well as reduce our risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and osteoporosis.[7] Eating well, in accordance with Canada’s Food Guide, will contribute to good overall health.

    Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide — A Resource for Educators and Communicators is a useful guide, designed to help educators teach about Canada’s Food Guide.

    For educators teaching about nutrition in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) communities, there are special considerations. Aboriginal cultures have distinct values and traditions, and sometimes different food choices from those of the general Canadian population.[8]  As such, when teaching about nutrition in FNMI communities, educators must find both suitable strategies and content that reflect and respect the beliefs, practices, history, and culture of their learners. For further information, please refer to Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide - First Nations, Inuit and Métis. It is available in four native languages (Inuktitut, Ojibwe, Plains Cree, and Woods Cree).

    Nutrition Facts Table

    Nutrition Facts tables are charts that outline the nutritional values of our foods. Health Canada requires that food manufacturers print a Nutrition Facts table on almost all packaged foods.[9] Please note that not all foods are not required to have a Nutrition Facts table such as fresh vegetables and fruits; raw meat and poultry (except when it is ground); raw fish and seafood; foods prepared or processed at the store (bakery items, salads, etc.); foods that contain very few nutrients such as coffee, tea, herbs and spices; and alcoholic beverages. Since it looks similar on all packaging, it is generally simple to find and easy to read. Nutrition Facts tables provide information about the number of calories, and the amount of 13 core nutrients found in the food as calculated from the serving size. 

    The information on a Nutrition Facts table is based on the serving size, which is clearly listed at the top of the table. Nutrition Facts tables outline the Percent Daily Value (% DV) of particular nutrients. This will tell you if the food contains a little or a lot of the nutrients listed on the Nutrition Facts tables, including fat (saturated and trans fat),  carbohydrates (fibre and sugar), protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, sodium, calcium, and iron.  In general, dietitians agree that 5% DV or less is considered “a little”, while 15–­20% DV or more is considered “a lot.”[10]

    While they may look complicated at first, especially to children, Nutrition Facts tables can be easily understood when broken down into five simple categories: serving size, percent daily value, calories, nutrients to consume in greater quantities, and nutrients to consume in lesser quantities.

    An ingredient list shows all the ingredients in a packaged food, from most to least. It can be used to learn about the composition of a particular food. Since many people have indicated they find the current ingredient list difficult read, Health Canada is proposing to improve both the Nutrition Facts table and the list of ingredients so they are easier to understand. In the meantime, it is crucial to teach children and youth how to read and understand Nutrition Facts tables and ingredient lists. This way, educators can help learners identify a food’s nutritional value, and consequently compare food products to make better choices.

    More information on Nutrition Facts tables and how to use them.

    Importance of Hydration

    Approximately, two-thirds of the human body is comprised of water.[11]  It helps your body work in many ways.

    Water:

    ● keeps your skin healthy; 

    ● regulates your body temperature;

    ● acts as a cushion between cells, muscles, and joints;

    ● transports nutrients throughout your body; 

    ● breaks down food so your body can absorb nutrients; and 

    ● helps rid your body of waste.[12]

    Every day, our bodies lose water by sweating, getting rid of waste, and even breathing! This means we need to consume enough water and fluids every day to stay hydrated and keep our bodies healthy. While water is generally considered the preferred option — because it is free of calories and effectively quenches thirst — all fluids help to hydrate your body.[13]  Low-fat milk and unsweetened fortified soy beverages (as well as juices that are made from 100% pure fruit or vegetables) are also smart options for staying hydrated.[14] Additionally, eating vegetables and fruit also helps hydrate your body because they contain lots of water.[12] Beverages that are high in calories, sugar, fat, and caffeine are not healthy options for hydration. Fruit-flavoured drinks, pop, powdered drink mixes, and sport and energy drinks are not recommended.

    How much fluid you need daily depends on your age and gender. Children ages one to three need about 4 cups (1 litre) daily, those ages four to eight require 5.5 cups (1.3 litres), while older kids and teens need even more — 7 cups (1.8 litres) for girls and 10.5 cups (2.6 litres) for boys. Even though these amounts may sound sizeable, remember that all fluids consumed count toward your daily water requirements.[15]

    Talking About Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

    Another mental health issue facing youths is eating disorders. The risk factors of disordered eating and eating disorders are prevalent, serious, and often chronic. Risk factors range from body dissatisfaction, or negative body image, to restrictive dieting and disordered eating patterns (such as binge eating and compensatory behaviours that are used to counteract the ingestion of calories, such as self-induced vomiting, laxative use, and excessive exercise). Eating disorders can be life-threatening and should be assessed by an experienced mental health professional if there are suspected concerns. Understanding the warning signs can help educators to support youths at risk, and to put in place supports to help a youth struggling with symptoms associated with eating problems. 

    The occurrence of other mental health problems is common (but not necessarily a prerequisite) with disordered eating and includes depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.[16], [17] A number of risk factors for the development of clinical eating disorders, such as negative body image, restrictive dieting, binge eating and purging behaviours, are found to be present among at least a segment of individuals who are overweight/obese.[18] This has led prevention experts to develop and consider shared intervention strategies that can be applied across a broad spectrum of weight-related issues.[19], [20], [21], [22]

    The effects of eating problems are especially critical during key developmental periods, such as adolescence.[23], [24] Many young people with eating problems do not believe there is anything wrong and therefore do not acknowledge the problem or seek the help they need. Continued support and encouragement to seek help is often needed. Often, the behaviours associated with disordered eating are not reflective of the child or adolescent making a voluntary decision, for example, not to eat. Some of these behaviours, such as dieting, have an obsessive quality that may be difficult to control. You may notice youths who have a sense of accomplishment with maintaining a level of thinness. Sometimes, you may observe denial from the young person when asked if he or she fears gaining weight, yet the patterns of behaviour suggest otherwise.  

    It is important to note that the appearance of a young person may not reflect whether disordered eating is occurring.[25] If there are problems with eating, the effects can influence the young person’s appearance and weight in different ways. It may also affect the child’s growth and development. On the flip side, some children may have a healthy weight and eat healthy even if their weight is a bit above or below the average, therefore having a broader understanding of eating disorders and related behaviour can be helpful.

    Best Practices in Healthy Eating

    Behaviours such as dieting, talking about appearance, and worrying about gaining weight are common at different stages of development, especially in the adolescent years. This preoccupation can be spurred on by having adults around them, including educators, focus on their appearance or talk about dieting and weight loss in front of them.[26] It is important to observe, however, if the young person’s daily activities, functioning in school and in a social setting, or mood is affected, these could be signs of a possible problem with eating. Current research dictates that information about eating disorders and their symptoms should not be taught in class (by educators or by learners).[27]


    [1] Government of Canada. (2013). What is healthy eating? Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/tips-healthy-eating/what-is-healthy-eating.html.

    [2] Christie, L., Hine, R.J., Parker, J.G., & Burks, W. (2002). Food allergies in children affect nutrient intake and growth. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 102, 1648–1651.

    [3] Ontario Public Health Association. (2009). Discover healthy eating! A teacher’s resource for grades 1–8. Retrieved from http://opha.on.ca/Resource-Documents/DiscoverHealthyEatinggr1-8_2009.aspx?ext=.pdf.

    [4] Ontario Ministry of Education. (2015). The Ontario curriculum grades 1–8: health and physical education, revised. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/health1to8.pdf 36–37.

    [5] Power, E.M. (2005). Determinants of healthy eating among low-income Canadians. Canadian Journal of Public Health 96, Supplement 3, S37–S42.

    [6] Teach Nutrition. (2015). Why teach nutrition? Retrieved from http://ontario.teachnutrition.ca/teaching-nutrition.aspx.

    [7] Katamay, S.W., Esslinger, K.A., Vigneault, M., Johnston, J.L., Junkins, B.A., Robbins, L.G., Sirois, I.V., Jones-McLean, E.M., Kennedy, A.F., …, & Martineau, C. (2007). Eating well with Canada's Food Guide (2007): development of the food intake pattern. Nutrition Reviews 65, 4, 155–166.

    [8] Health Canada. (2010). Eating well with Canada's Food Guide — First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/canada-food-guide/eating-well-with-canada-food-guide-first-nations-inuit-metis.html.

    [10] Government of Canada. (2014). The percent daily value (% DV). Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/understanding-food-labels/percent-daily-value.html.

    [11] Dietitians of Canada. (2013). Water. Retrieved from https://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Water.aspx.

    [12] Government of Canada. (2014). Stay hydrated with water. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/tips-healthy-eating/stay-hydrated-with-water.html.

    [13] Dietitians of Canada. (2014). Guidelines for drinking fluids to stay hydrated. Retrieved from https://www.dietitians.ca/getattachment/becace49-3bad-4754-ac94-f31c3f04fed0/FACTSHEET-Guidelines-for-staying-hydrated.pdf.aspx.

    [16] British Columbia Ministry of Health. (2013). Clinical practice guidelines for the BC eating disorders continuum of services. Retrieved from http://www.bcchildrens.ca/mental-health-services-site/Documents/Clinical%20Practice%20Guidelines%20for%20the%20BC%20Eating%20Disorders%20Continuum%20of%20Services.pdf

    [17] Piran, N., & Gadalla, G. (2006). Eating disorders and substance abuse in Canadian women: A national study. Addiction, 102, 105-113.

    [18] Government of Canada. (2006). The human face of mental health and mental illness in Canada. Retrieved from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/webarchives/20061211013049/http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/human-humain06/pdf/human_face_e.pdf

    [19] McVey, G.L., Levine M.P., Piran, N., & Ferguson, B. (Eds.) (2012). Prevention of eating-related and weight related disorders: Collaborative research, advocacy and policy change. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

    [20] McVey, G.L. (2011). Linking research, practice, and policy in the prevention of weight-related disorders: A national meeting of researchers, practitioners and policymakers, November 17-18, 2011: A discussion document.The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario. Retrieved from www.ocoped.ca

    [21] McVey, G.L., Adair, C., deGroot, J., McLaren, L., Potnikoff, R., Gray-Donald, K., & Collier, S. (2008). Obesity and eating disorders: Seeking common ground to promote health. A national meeting of researchers, practitioners and policymakers, November 2007. Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Institute of Public and Population Health Sciences, Knowledge Translation Seed Grant, and Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism, and Diabetes. Retrieved from www.ocoped.ca

    [22] Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). “I’m, like, so fat!” Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. New York, NY: The Guildford Press.

    [23] Golden, N.H., Katzman, D.K., Kreipe, R.E., Stevens, S.L., Sawyer, S.M., Rees, J., …, & Rome, E.S. (2003). Eating disorders in adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 33, 496-503. Retrieved from https://www.adolescenthealth.org/SAHM_Main/media/Advocacy/Positions/Dec-03-Eating_Disorders_in_Adolescents.pdf

    [24] Piran, N., McVey, G.L., & Levine, M. P. (2014). Eating disorders in adolescence. In T. P. Gullotta & M. Bloom (Eds.), The encyclopedia of primary prevention and health promotion (2nd ed., Vol. 3, pp. 1134-1147). New York, NY: Springer.

    [25] New York State Department of Health. (2008). Understanding eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/chronic/eating_disorders/understanding_ed.htm

    [26] Mental Health and Spiritual Health Care. (2006). Eating disorders: best practices in prevention and intervention. Retrieved from https://digitalcollection.gov.mb.ca/awweb/pdfopener?smd=1&did=19275&md=1

    [27] Stice, E., & Shaw, H. (2004). Eating disorder prevention programs: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 130 (2), 206–277.