Advances in Applied Sociology
2012. Vol.2, No.1, 73-80
Published Online March 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 73
Learning about Vegetarian Diets in School: Curricular
Representations of Food and Nutrients in Elementary
Health Education
Clara Hanson
Department of Sociolo g y, The George Washington U n iversity, Washingt on DC, USA
Received January 17th, 2012; revised Feb ruary 18th, 2012; accepted M arch 1st, 2012
This paper examines the way non-meat and plant based diets are discussed in four elementary curricula.
The author used an open coding technique of grounded theory to understand the way food, nutrition and
vegetarianism was discussed. The curricula relied heavily upon the USDA Food Pyramid and a related
concept of “balance” for nutritional information. The curricula also discussed nutrition in terms of food
and food groups, rather than in terms of nutrients. Although some of the curricula included information
about the benefits of vegetarian diets, the high level of use of the Food Pyramid often overwhelmed the
low level of information about vegetarianism.
Keywords: Vegetarianism; Veganism; Nutrition Curricula; Food Pyramid; Elementary Nutrition
When I gave up meat the summer before my sophomore year
of high school, my sister angrily tried to convince me not to.
She said I might be dead in two years, definitely dead in five. It
has been five years, and I am still here. I was a pescetarian for
three years, a vegetarian for one, and I have been a vegan for
almost two years. Over that time, I have been asked a lot of
questions about how healthy my diet is, and what foods I eat.
These questions usually indicate a lack of knowledge about
basic nutrition, and often reveal misinformation about nutrition
and diet. According to the American Dietetic Association, an
appropriately planned vegetarian diet can provide adequate
nutrition for children (ADA, 2010: p. 1246). If this is true, why
was my sister convinced giving up meat would be fatal?
For this research project, I wanted to investigate whether or
not students learned about vegetarianism in school. If they did,
I wanted to investigate what information they were given, and
how that information was framed. I assumed that if students
were taught about vegetarianism, it would be within nutrition
curricula. I conducted an exploratory study with four nutrition
curricula. I used a grounded theory approach to code the domi-
nant messages within the curricula. My major finding was a
link between the word “balance” and the concept implied by the
Food Pyramid that allowed the curriculums to imply the stan-
dard of the Food Pyramid without explicitly mentioning or
showing it. Although the USDA recently changed its food
guide model to the MyPlate guide, the Food Pyramid is still in
circulation. Specifically, it was the focal point of three of the
curricula I examined. The implications of the Food Pyramid in
curricula can be understood through the work of Marion Nestle
(2003). She explains that food lobbies, including the meat and
dairy lobbies, have historically used their influence to alter the
image of the Food Pyramid. She also explains that various food
lobbies and food companies have influenced other curricula or
published their own curriculum to reflect their own interests.
Most studies of nutrition curricula in the past ten years have
been program analyses that attempted to evaluate whether spe-
cific curricula were effective at changing students’ knowledge
or behaviors. Many focused on fruit and vegetable outcomes.
One 2002 study, for example, found that exposure to a garden-
enhanced curriculum improved students’ preferences for sev-
eral vegetables (Morris & Zidenberg, 2002: p. 92) . Another eva-
luated students’ ability to recognize fruits and vegetables. That
study found that the majority of students defined “healthy eat-
ing” as something related to eating a “balanced” diet with high
fruit and vegetable consumption (Edwards & Hartwell, 2002: p.
373). Another study demonstrated the success of a program by
showing that it increased students’ knowledge of grains, fruits,
and vegetables (Katz et al., 2010: p. 25). Although this evalua-
tion offered many constructive ideas about the importance of
multi-faceted interventions in nutrition education, it was pri-
marily concerned with how much information about the Food
Pyramid students retained. It did not consider whether learning
about the Food Pyramid was a desirable objective. If the Food
Pyramid is in fact flawed, so is this evaluation’s definition of a
successful program.
Other program evaluations that examined nutrition knowl-
edge retention were limited by what the curriculum they evalu-
ated contained. One study that focused on nutrition label liter-
acy found that while their program increased knowledge, it did
not significantly improve dietary patterns (McCaughtry et al.,
2011: p. 282). Another study about general nutrition concluded
that it had a positive effect on students because although the
program did not improve students’ understanding of vegetarian
diets, it did increase students’ understanding of the Food Pyra-
mid, essential nutrients, and special dietary needs, which in-
cluded the needs of astronauts (Moreno et al., 2004: p. 125).
Some of the standards used to evaluate curricula focused very
narrowly on particular interests, such as the evaluation of a
swine-centered curriculum. The goal of this evaluation was to
measure how effective the curriculum taught “subject matter
relating to the pork industry, pork as a nutritious protein source,
and the value of byproducts derived from pork production.”
(Wagler et al., 2008: p. 89) By this program’s standards, a suc-
cessful curriculum is measured by how much swine information
students learn. The contrast between the various goals of these
curricula and evaluations illustrates the variety of food ideolo-
gies present within curricula and within the greater nutrition
The majority of the studies I found related to nutrition educa-
tion were program evaluations of how effective a curriculum
was at delivering its message. Many of the curricula under
evaluation were narrowly tailored for specific industries. Their
definitions of “success” vary from improvement in students’
fruit and vegetable knowledge to the integration of knowledge
about the pork industry. While evaluation studies are important,
they do not problematize the manner in which nutrition infor-
mation is framed or the implications of that framing. Few stud-
ies have analyzed nutrition curricula with the aim of revealing
what these health education lessons indicate about larger socie-
tal priorities and ideologies. My study takes on this larger goal
by investigating the way one topic, vegetarianism, is presented
within four popular curricula. Investigating this particular topic
sheds light on the place of vegetarianism in health education
lessons specifically, and it also reveals the political and ideo-
logical work that is done when the lessons focus on “food
groups” rather than “nutrients”. Since nutrients comprise food
this may seem like a neutral distinction, but food groups are, in
fact, highly politicized demarcations that reflect the long-term,
behind-the-scenes lobbying of many food industries. Normal-
izing the importance of “meat” in students’ diets rather than
“proteins”, for example, both reflects these political and eco-
nomic interests and socializes a generation of elementary school
children to equate the two (protein = meat) and to think of ve-
getable, nut, and legume sources of protein as marginal, odd,
and even dangerous.
Data and Methods
To conduct this analysis I initially tried to locate curricula by
calling schools in the Rockville, Maryland area. I was told dis-
trict was in the process of writing its own curriculum and could
not release it yet, so I began to contact Maryland district offices
instead. I had initial difficulty contacting the administrators in
charge of nutrition curricula, which may be an important bit of
data about the amount of transparency of nutrition education in
the districts in this state. However, I was told by one adminis-
trator that the entire state was writing its own nutrition curricu-
lum to be taught consistently throughout the state. Because the
schools were in the process of a curriculum change, most were
unable to share their current curriculum with me. The schools
that were able to share the name of their former curricula had
used curricula that were well above my research budget.
In order to bypass school districts, I independently located
curriculum stores in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia.
I compared the inventory of three chains with multiple stores in
the area: Education Outlet, Teacher’s Mart, and Education Etc.
If two or more of the stores sold the same curriculum, I saw it
as an indicator of popularity. I decided to focus on curriculum
designed for grades 4 - 6. I assumed that curricula designed for
younger students might focus on more basic material, while
nutrition education may not be a priority for students and tea-
chers in higher grade levels. Because I used each store’s online
inventory, I did not consider whether the online store and the
actual store had the same inventory. I found that all three stores
sold Food, Nutrition & Invention, Health Choices Grades 4 - 5,
and Health, Nutrition and P.E. Grades 5 - 6. I found that two of
the stores sold Healthy Eating & Exercise. I ordered these four
books because they were all designed for students in grades 4 -
6. Because of their popularity and availability, it seemed feasible
that they would be taught in schools across the DC metro area.
I analyzed these curricula as data using the open coding tech-
nique of grounded theory (Charmaz, 2006). I first read through
each curriculum and recorded my initial reactions. Then, I coded
each curriculum. To code, I made a spreadsheet using five cate-
gories for each code. The first two categories pertained to the
location of the code—I recorded which book they were in and
which page number. The next category was the type of code, be
it an illustration, word, phrase, or concept. The fourth category
contained a one-to-three-word description of the content of the
code, such as “class”. The final category was an extension of
the fourth category, usually a more thorough description or, if
the code was actual text, the sentence in which the code was
contained. Throughout the process of coding, I noticed concepts
consistently implied throughout the text. I paid closer attention
to those codes, such as the concept of “balance.” Because of the
nature of my study, I tended to code sections that addressed
vegetarianism more closely than sections that did not. When I
finished coding, I printed the excel spreadsheet and highlighted
the words that were used the most consistently. These words
were Food Pyramid or food guide, balance or variety, milk,
protein, any derivative of the word healthy, and vegetarian or
vegan. For the purpose of this study, I defined a vegetarian as
someone who abstained from animal product consumption to
some extent. This includes pescetarians, who eat no animal
flesh but fish; vegetarians, who eat no meat; vegans, who eat no
meat or animal by-product, and any diet that falls in between
these categories.
As a starting point for building my analysis of these concepts,
I used the sensitizing concepts (Charmaz, 2003) gleaned from
Marion Nestle’s book Food Politics: How the food industry
influences nutrition and health (2003). Nestle argues that the
meat and dairy industries have influenced the dynamics of the
Food Pyramid. In 1991 the Food Pyramid was redesigned and
the meat and dairy groups were placed in an “eat less” category.
At the time, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medi-
cine asked the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
to replace food groups with vegetarian groups (Nestle, 2003: p.
56). In addition, nutritionists questioned whether the benefits of
dairy outweighed the high levels of fat, hormones, and aller-
genic proteins of milk (Nestle, 2003: p. 79). Yet after the lob-
bying efforts of various meat and dairy lobbies, this version of
the Food Pyramid was withdrawn. The USDA published a new
version of the Pyramid that advocated for higher meat and dairy
consumption than the original “Basic Four” one year later
(Nestle, 2003: pp. 63-64). In other instances, the authors of nu-
tritional standards have had direct ties to various factions of the
food industry. For example, six of the 11 members of the 1998
nutritional guidelines committee had significant ties to the meat,
egg, or dairy industry (Nestle, 2003: p. 73). The USDA is pri-
marily responsible to the agricultural business, not eaters or
consumers, and this is reflected in the nutritional guidance they
provide via the Food Pyramid (Nestle, 2003: p. 51).
Nestle also highlights the ways food companies influence the
information that is distributed within schools. Because parents
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
tend to be too busy to watch what their children eat in school,
she says, the responsibility of teaching children healthy dietary
habits often rests on the school (Nestle, 2003: p. 196). However,
commercial interests have infiltrated schools. Many firms spe-
cialize in planting commercial products in curricula and food
guides. Some companies produce their own curriculum materi-
als that play to their interests. For example, the Egg Board’s
curriculum minimizes the importance of cholesterol (Nestle,
2003: p. 190).
Nestle’s work provides the political context necessary to in-
form my analysis of nutrition education curricula. I use this as
background information to help me interpret the patterns ap-
parent in four popular curricula. In the next section I describe
how vegetarianism is presented in each of these curricula, along
with an analysis of the apparent centrality of the Food Pyra-
mid—and therefore of agricultural industry—in the lessons
taught to many elementary school children.
Health, Nutrition, and P.E.
The first curriculum I coded was Health, Nutrition, and P.E.,
published in 2007. Its author, D. W. Skrabaneck, holds a Mas-
ters degree and has over twenty years of experience in teaching,
writing and editing curricula. The curriculum is about general
health and contains a 14-page section devoted to nutrition. The
USDA Food Pyramid is the dominant source of nutritional
guidance in the text. It frequently discusses nutrition in terms of
foods rather than nutrients, and often linked certain foods to
certain nutrients. Although this way of discussing nutrition may
be more readily understood by students, it becomes problematic
if certain sources of nutrients are privileged over others. Al-
though the text attempts to discuss vegetarianism in a positive
way, the lessons still present vegetarianism as a non-normative
diet. The text also uses “balance” as a surrogate word for the
concept of following the dietary guidelines of the Food Pyra-
The Food Pyramid is a hierarchal structure that illustrates
how many “servings” of each “food group” one should ingest
per day. The food groups in the texts I examined tended to be
grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and beans, and sugars and
fats. Although the USDA has changed the names of the food
groups and the structure of the guide under the new MyPlate
guide, older versions of the Food Pyramid were still present in
the curricula I examined. Health, Nutrition and P.E. empha-
sizes the Pyramid rather than other vehicles to understand nutri-
tion. While the curriculum discusses the concept of nutrients
such as proteins, minerals, and vitamins, this discussion appears
on only one page of the curriculum. The Food Pyramid concept
greatly overshadows the nutrient discussion as it is explicitly
addressed on six pages of the 14-page curriculum (Skrabaneck,
2007: p. 3). Nutrients are not nearly as integrated in the lessons
as the ongoing discussion of the Food Pyramid and food groups.
Not only does this curriculum discuss nutrition in terms of
food groups and food sources more consistently than in terms
of nutrients, it also tends to emphasize the value of other (non-
meat) animal products such as milk and eggs for their protein
content. For example, in one activity two pages before the
vegetarian section, students are asked to answer questions about
the nutritional facts label of a box of cereal. The final question
asks students to identify what the box suggests to increase pro-
tein content in the cereal. Although protein can be added to a
breakfast in any number of ways, this label suggests adding
whole milk (Skrabaneck, 2007: p. 75).
The text attempts to discuss vegetarianism positively, but it
still treats vegetarianism as a non-normative diet. The section
titled “Being a Vegetarian” begins with the sentence, “You’ve
probably heard about vegetarians, but you may not know ex-
actly what being a vegetarian means” (Skrabaneck, 2007: p. 77,
boldface in the original). The text assumes that students have
little to no previous knowledge of vegetarianism. The curricu-
lum further asks why being a vegetarian might be a healthier
choice than following a “traditional American diet”. (Skra-
baneck, 2007: p. 77) Although this suggests that being a vege-
tarian might be a healthy choice, it qualifies vegetarianism as a
nontraditional, perhaps even non-American diet. By treating
vegetarianism as a non-normative diet, the curriculum implies
that it is a less viable diet for students than one centered on the
Food Pyramid, and by extension on meat and dairy.
Health, Nutrition, and P.E. uses the concept of “balance” as
a surrogate word for the Food Pyramid throughout the text. The
curriculum first links balance to the Food Pyramid at the begin-
ning of the text in its “Standards Chart.” The book defines its
educational standards by identifying the nutritional knowledge
addressed by the curriculum. One standard that appears on five
pages of the curriculum “explains how the Food Pyramid helps
people obtain a balanced diet” (Skrabaneck, 2007: p. 4). In an-
other section, a diagnostic test contains an explicit link between
balance and the Food Pyramid. The first nutrition-related ques-
tion reads: “The Food Pyramid shows the food groups and the
amount of each group you need to eat for a diet” (Skrabaneck,
2007: p. 7). “Balance” and “vegetarian” are both listed as pos-
sible answers. The correct answer is balance. Not only is bal-
ance explicitly tied to the Food Pyramid, but balance is also
portrayed as something that is not vegetarian. Because vege-
tarianism is not the correct answer, the reader might also as-
sume that the Food Pyramid cannot be used to understand a
vegetarian diet. This is problematic because the Food Pyramid
is the curriculum’s primary source of dietary guidance, and in
this question it implies that the Food Pyramid does not have
flexibility for non-normative diets.
The Food Pyramid is balanced and normative, while vege-
tarianism is not balanced and not normative. In what may be an
attempt to normalize vegetarianism, this text does emphasize
the value of some non-meat sources of protein throughout the
text. However, those non-meat sources are still animal proteins:
eggs and milk. The book links “healthy” vegetarianism to ani-
mal proteins with explicit statements such as, “Vegetarians who
eat egg and milk products can easily get enough protein, an
important part of a healthful diet” (Skrabaneck, 2007: p. 77).
The curriculum also emphasizes the difficulties a vegetarian
who does not consume animal proteins might have in consum-
ing an adequate amount of protein (Skrabaneck, 2007: p. 77).
Nestle (2003) might point out that many nutritional authorities
have found that proper vegetarian diets often correlate with a
number of health benefits, including lower blood pressure,
lower rates of hypertension, and lower rates of type 2 diabetes
(American Dietetic Association, 2009: p. 1266). However, this
curriculum relies so heavily on the Food Pyramid that it cannot
reconcile its advocacy of a diet rich in animal protein with ad-
vocacy of a diet devoid of animal protein within the same guide.
The curriculum’s reliance on the Food Pyramid is both explicit
and implicit with the word “balance,” and both of these con-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 75
cepts are in opposition to vegetarianism as a viable dietary op-
Healthy Choices
Like Health, Nutrition, and P.E., Healthy Choices is a health
education curriculum that contains a nutrition section. It was
published in 2006. (The author’s name and credentials are not
included in the book, and cannot be found on the publisher’s
website.) Also like the previous text, this curriculum uses the
Food Pyramid as its main resource for nutritional information.
This text even more explicitly links specific nutrients to spe-
cific food groups, particularly meat to protein and milk to cal-
cium. This curriculum almost entirely neglects vegetarianism. It
only mentions the diet once, in a negative context. “Balance”
was used in the same way as in the previous curriculum, as a
surrogate word for the Food Pyramid. This curriculum left little
room for vegetarianism by emphasizing the authority of the
Food Pyramid and animal sources of nutrients without address-
ing the benefits or drawbacks of a vegetarian diet.
This curriculum almost exclusively discusses diet in terms of
the Food Pyramid. Although this text refers to it a s the “Healthy
Eating Guide,” the first page of the nutrition section contains an
image of the Food Pyramid (Didax, 2006: p. 23).The text dis-
cusses foods in terms of their food groups, and further ties food
groups to certain nutrients. Protein is often tied to meat and
dairy products, and calcium is almost exclusively tied to dairy
products. Milk, yogurt, and cheese are said to provide calcium,
protein, and energy (Diadax, 2006: p. 22). No other group pro-
vides the “nutrient” energy according to this text, although
calories are present in every food and provide energy. Accord-
ing to the teacher’s guide, the dairy group “is the be st sourc e of
calcium for healthy bones and teeth.” (Diadax, 2006: p. 22)
Dairy products are further tied to the benefits of calcium in a
fill in the blank activity. In the activity, the only answer to the
question “Which foods would help you build strong bones?” is
dairy (Diadax, 2006: p. 27).
The link between nutrients and food sources does not stop at
dairy. Animal sources of protein are also linked throughout the
book. Although the book lists nuts and beans as sources of pro-
tein in some parts of the text, it also lists animal byproducts
exclusively in other parts of the text. For example, one group of
the Food Pyramid is defined as “meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts,
legumes”, and is linked to protein as well as other nutrients
(Didax, 2006: p. 22). However, in another section of the book
protein is defined as, “a common name given to the food group
which contains meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt, etc,” (Di-
dax, 2006: p. 12). Students must apparently figure out for them-
selves what the “et cetera” might include.
This text almost complet ely ignored vegetarianism. The only
time it mentioned vegetarianism is in the meat, fish, poultry,
eggs, nuts, and legumes section of the teacher’s guide. It reads,
“iron supplements may be needed for vegetarians and those
people who do not eat red meat” (Didax, 2006: p. 22). In this
example, vegetarianism is portrayed as a diet that lacks nutri-
ents rather than provides them. By not including an explanation
about vegetarianism, the text does not even allow students to
consider it.
On the first page of the nutrition section, “balance” is linked
to the Food Pyramid under the heading “Healthy Eating”. A
caption explains, “Everybody needs to have a well-balanced
diet made up of a variety of foods from different food groups.”
(Didax, 2006: p. 23) A chart on the next page lists the food
groups under the heading “A Balanced Diet” (Didax, 2006: p.
25). These food groups include bread, cereal, rice, pasta, noo-
dles; vegetables; fruit; meat, poultry, fish, legumes, eggs, nuts;
milk, yogurt, cheese; fats, oils, sweets; and water. Interestingly,
the image of the Food Pyramid itself is absent from this cur-
riculum even while the word “balance” reminds students of its
guidelines throughout the nutrition lessons.
In comparison to Healthy, Nutrition, and P.E., the use of the
word “balance” in Healthy Choices is even more problematic
for vegetarianism because this curriculum does not include any
material that would allow students to consider it as a desirable
or even viable option. The only time vegetarianism is brought
up in the text is in the context of deficiency. By not offering a
counter example of a healthy diet that does not follow the Food
Pyramid, students are left to believe that a “balanced” diet
planned according to the Food Pyramid’s food-group-based
standards is the only healthy diet possible. Further, by empha-
sizing animal sources of protein and calcium, the book implies
that animals are the most suitable, and even the only sources of
those nutrients.
Healthy Eating & Exercise
The curriculum Healthy Eating & Exercise, published in
2008, is almost exclusively devoted to nutrition. It was written
by two women with impressive credentials: the first, Kerry
Humes, attended Harvard University for her undergraduate
degree and Northwestern University for her M.D. The second,
Anne Davies, also attended Harvard University and then re-
ceived her Master’s degree from Oxford University. While the
first author has experience as a medical doctor, the other has ten
years of experience in children’s publishing. Like the other
curricula, this text uses the Food Pyramid as its dominant
source of nutritional information, and it does link specific foods
with specific nutrients. However, this curriculum attempts to
break these links to a greater degree than the other two curric-
ula. This curriculum portrays vegetarians positively to some
degree, but it ultimately presents vegetarianism in a way that is
at once simple and confusing. Although this curriculum didn’t
use the word balance in the same way the other two curricu-
lums did, it did not need a surrogate word to incorporate the
Food Pyramid throughout its text; the book’s structure is based
on the Food Pyramid, and therefore the Food Pyramid is pre-
sent on every page. Of all the curricula, this one most clearly
attempts to frame vegetarianism as a healthy diet.
The centrality of the Food Pyramid is apparent in three ways
in this curriculum. First, the book intentionally structures its
units based on the groups of the Food Pyramid (Davies and
Humes, 2008: p. 1). The Food Pyramid is introduced at the be-
ginning of the text with a large picture and a four-page unit
about how to evaluate a diet based on the Pyramid (Davies and
Humes, 2008: p. 3). The importance of the Food Pyramid is
referenced in other units as well. For example, one activity
within the grains and breakfast unit asks students to graph what
percentage of the students in class are above the recommenda-
tions, are adhering to the recommendations, and are below the
recommendations of one group of the Food Pyramid (Davies
and Humes, 2008: p. 19).
While food and nutrients are linked in this curriculum, the
text does not tie specific food groups to nutrients to the same
degree as the others. Rather, it names a variety of foods from
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
many groups that are a good source of a single nutrient. For
example, when the book addresses calcium, it lists artichokes,
broccoli, peas, kiwis, oranges, and blackberries as possible
sources before milk, yogurt, and cheese (Davies & Humes,
2008: p. 32). The teacher’s guide at the beginning of the Meat,
Beans, and Dairy section states that it is, “designed to help
students start to think about getting protein from a variety of
sources, not just red meat.” (Davies & Humes, 2008: p. 59) The
“Where’s Your Protein From?” page allows students to calcu-
late the actual amount of protein they need, and to chart how
much protein they get from a variety of sources, including bea ns,
dairy, grains, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits, and
vegetables (Davies & Humes, 2008: p. 61).
Although this curriculum attempts to discuss a wider range
of foods as a source of various nutrients than Health, Nurition,
and P.E. and Healthy Choices, it sometimes still uses meat as a
way to discuss protein and dairy as a way to discuss calcium.
For example, the “What ’s up with Moo” page addresses lactose
intolerance and alternative sources of calcium (Davies & Humes,
2008: p. 63). However, dairy is still the focus of the page even
when the curriculum attempts to differentiate between dairy and
calcium. For example, the headline itself uses the word “moo,”
which implies dairy by evoking the noise of a cow. When the
page lists non-dairy sources of calcium, they are discussed as
sources of calcium that are not dairy rather than simply other
sources of calcium. Another page lists dairy products as “ex-
cellent” sources of calcium, but says leafy green vegetables and
beans are “‘good’ sources too”. (Davies & Humes, 2008: p. 64)
One cup of skim milk contains 302 milligrams of calcium and
1/2 a cup of collard greens contains 179 (University of Michi-
gan Health System, 2010). However, some studies report that
milk can be high in saturated fat and other nutrients which
weaken bones, undoing the work of calcium (Harvard School of
Public Health, 2012). Although a serving of milk may be higher
in calcium than a serving of many vegetables, one must con-
sider the way all of the nutrients in milk as well as other foods
interact with the body before they can be considered “excel-
lent”, “good”, or even undesirable sources of calcium.
The link between protein and animal foods are addressed in a
similar manner. The curriculum discusses beans, nuts, and other
plant sources as equals with animal sources in the meat, beans,
and dairy section of the book. However, other sections of the
book revert to using animal byproducts to discuss protein. For
example, the grains and breakfast section suggests adding yo-
gurt, eggs, or cheese to breakfast for additional protein without
mentioning peanut butter or another plant based protein (Davies
& Humes, 2008: p. 10). In another activity, students are asked
to imagine which three fruits and vegetables, one grain, and one
dairy product they would bring to a deserted island. They are
told there will be plenty of fish to catch for protein (Davies &
Humes, 2008: p. 34). This discourages students from thinking
about the other foods they bring to the island as sources of pro-
Vegetarians are addressed in the meat, beans, and dairy sec-
tion of the curriculum. Although three pages of the text are
devoted to vegetarianism, none of them gives a coherent defini-
tion of what a vegetarian is or explains in depth why someone
might consider becoming one. I would argue that because the
vast majority of Americans are raised eating animal foods
regularly, they do not regularly consider other types of diets.
Because the Food Pyramid is structured to perpetuate this kind
of diet, it creates a loop that perpetuates the consumption of
foods already frequently consumed by Americans. Although
this is the only text to use the word “vegan”, it uses vegetarian
and vegan interchangeably and does not clearly distinguish be-
tween the two terms. The section also assumes students have a
certain degree of knowledge about vegetarians. It suggests that
students may not be aware that some religions are associated
with vegetarianism, and prompts the teacher to explain it (Da-
vies & Humes, 2008: p. 59). This implies that students should
already be familiar with the animal rights, environmental, and
health reasons for being a vegetarian, and so these reasons are
not addressed. This section also encourages students to think of
vegetarianism as a meal choice rather than as a lifestyle choice.
It says, “You don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy vegetarian
dinners.” (Davies & Humes, 2008: p. 68). Although this ap-
proach may encourage students who aren’t willing or able to
make a complete dietary lifestyle change to try vegetarianism to
some degree, it does not make the vegetarian diet as accessible
to students as much as it could. The curriculum also discusses
vegetarian meals on two pages of the curriculum, and the vege-
tarian lifestyle on only one. Although this text appears to intend
to discuss vegetarianism positively, the way it does so is in fact
somewhat problematic.
Unlike the other curricula, this book did not use the word
“balance” consistently throughout its text. It used the word
balance occasionally, but not to imply the structure of the Food
Pyramid. The function of the word balance in the other texts
was to maintain the presence of the Food Pyramid throughout
the text. Although this text does not use the word balance as the
other texts do, almost any given page contains the ideology of
the Food Pyramid. Although this text does not imply the Food
Pyramid with a word, it does use another mechanism to main-
tain a presence of the Food Pyramid throughout the book.
This curriculum discusses food and nutrients in a way that
supports both meat and non-meat based diets as healthy. By
naming a variety of foods that contain a certain nutrient rather
than more tightly associating a food group with a certain nutria-
ent, the book made the discussion of vegetarianism as a healthy
diet possible before the text reached its vegetarian section.
However, the text failed to make a clear statement about vege-
tarianism in its vegetarian section. The potential this book has
for positive vegetarian nutrition education is ultimately over-
shadowed by the Food Pyramid, which was used to structure
the book.
Food Nutrition & Invention
The final text I analyzed was Food Nutrition & Invention.
This curriculum differs from the other books because it teaches
English and writing skills along with nutrition. It was originally
published in Canada in 1996 before it was revised and entered
the American market in 2007. Because the text is used in both
Canada and the US—two countrie s with different food guides—
no images of either food guide or discussion of specific serv-
ings and guidelines appear in the text. The curriculum suggests
using “your country’s food guide” to teach lessons (Southall &
Wearing, 2007: p. 12). Although the actual Food Pyramid is not
present in the text, the curriculum still organizes its text around
the food groups. For example, the book uses food groups to
discuss the ways different types of foods are produced. Despite
the appearance of certain concepts of the Food Pyramid, the
curriculum discusses vegetarianism in a positive way. Not only
does this curriculum discuss the food pyramid, nutrients, and
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 77
vegetarianism in a way that was different from the other curric-
ula, but it also encourages students to consider the ethics of
food production. The discussion of food production was com-
pletely absent from the other three curricula, perhaps because of
the ramifications such a public discussion could potentially
have for certain factions of the food industry.
Food Nutrition & Invention sometimes links food groups to
nutrients, but it also provides additional information about how
foods are manufactured. For example, the Meat and Alter- na-
tives section explains that most eggs come from hens kept in
cages on large battery farms (Southall & Wearing, 2007: p. 14).
Information about the nature of food production encourages
students to think about food in a variety of ways, not simply as
a source of nutrients. Even so, the text does link food groups to
nutrients early on. In the preface to a section that describes each
food group, for instance, calcium is linked to dairy, and these
links are present throughout th e rest of this section.
This curriculum did not discuss vegetarianism in depth, but
did discuss vegetarianism in a relatively supportive manner
when it was addressed. The term is first mentioned at the be-
ginning of the book as part of a classroom activity. The teacher
is asked to, “explain the term vegetarian to your students and
discuss possible reasons for people making this decision, as
well as the nutritional value of alternatives to meat” (Southall &
Wearing, 2007: p. 5). The motives and benefits for being ve-
getarian are not included in this text, so it is impossible to know
what the curriculum intends teachers to say. However, vegeta-
rianism is still portrayed positively. The word vegetarian is also
used in a fill-in-the-blank activity. Once solved, the sentence
reads, “A person who chooses not to eat meat is called a vege-
tarian. A vegetarian may get protein from those foods as well as
milk and eggs” (Southall & Wearing, 2007: p. 14). The other
foods listed include beans and nuts. However, within the sen-
tence, vegetarianism is linked directly to milk and egg con-
sumption. The final time vegetarianism is used in this text is in
a section in which students are asked to define a variety of es-
sential words, including calorie, nutrient, famine, protein, fiber,
and vitamin (Southall & Wearing, 2007: p. 63). The book indi-
cates that vegetarianism is important by positioning it with
other important words.
Analysis and Implications
One of the primary findings of this analysis is that the Food
Pyramid has a very substantial role in the structure and concept
of three of the four curricula I examined. While vegetarianism
was present in every curriculum, and was portrayed positively
in three, the presence of the Food Pyramid overwhelmed the
presence of vegetarianism overall. The American Dietetic As-
sociation, American Heart Asssociation, Mayo Foundation for
Medical Education and Research, and even the USDA itself say
that vegetarian diets can meet nutrient requirements (American
Heart Association, 2011; Mayo Clinic, 2010; United States De-
partment of Agriculture 2011). I do not argue that a vegetar-
ian-dominant curriculum should replace the curricula I exam-
ined. Rather, I argue that the structure of the curricula I exam-
ined tended to favor a single type of diet based on the Food
Pyramid rather than allowing students to consider a wide array
of healthy dietary choices, including vegetarianism. If both a
vegetarian diet and a diet based on the Food Pyramid can pro-
vide adequate nutrition, there must be a reason that does not
have anything to do with nutrition that allows the Food Pyra-
mid to be so dominant in nutrition curricula. This difference in
diet portrayal can be understood through Nestle’s theory in
Food Politics.
The Food Pyramid is a government-sponsored dietetic model,
which gives it a great deal of perceived authority in Americans’
dietary practices. The United States Department of Agriculture
constructs the Food Pyramid (and now the MyPlate guide). As
Nestle explains, the authority of the USDA to construct a na-
tional dietary model is problematic because the USDA is re-
sponsible to the agriculture industry, not to nutritionists (Nestle,
2003: p. 51). Nestle demonstrates that various lobbies, includ-
ing dairy and meat lobbies, used their influence to pressure the
USDA to construct a dietary model more sympathetic to their
products (Nestle, 2003: pp. 61-65). For example, the 2000
Guidelines use the word “saturated fat” rather than “animal fat”
to appease the industries that would be affected by the Guide-
lines’ recommendation to limit intake of “saturated” or “ani-
mal” fat (Nestle, 2003: pp. 77-78). As another product of the
USDA, the Food Pyramid to an extent reflects the interests of
the food industries with the most clout rather than the latest
scientific knowledge about diet. If nutrition curricula publish
the Food Pyramid and rely heavily on it for their own dietary
recommendations, nutrition curricula also reflect the interests of
the food lobbies that changed the Pyramid.
When the curricula I analyzed do incorporate discussions of
vegetarianism, they try to fit vegetarianism within the guide-
lines of the Food Pyramid by stressing the importance getting
enough protein and other nutrients from animal foods such as
eggs and milk. Only one curriculum, Healthy Eating & Exer-
cise, makes a clear and consistent effort to link calcium with
non-dairy foods. The tendency to portray milk as the best, and
sometimes only, source of calcium can be traced to some of the
nation’s most prestigious groups. For example, the Institute of
Medicine recommended in 2007 that milk, including flavored
milk, should be sold throughout schools to improve children’s
calcium consumption (Yaktine, Okita et al., 2007: p. 4). While
it is difficult to question the most prestigious groups in Ameri-
can medicine, it is also problematic to obscure nutritional facts:
milk is not the only source of calcium, and animal foods are not
the only sources of protein.
The meat, dairy, and other agriculture industries have dis-
proportionate influence in creating the Food Pyramid, and these
guidelines represent what Americans consider a normative and
ideal diet. By attempting to fit vegetarianism within the guide-
lines of the Food Pyramid, the curricula in this analysis trans-
form the structure of a vegetarian diet to one that includes a
high amount of animal foods. In doing so, the lobbies that in-
fluence the structure of the Food Pyramid, namely the meat and
dairy lobbies, also influence the way people who might be con-
sidered least likely to consume their products—vegetarians –
eat. Although the meat and dairy industries may not have di-
rectly influenced the curricula I examined, the curricula’s con-
tents still served their interests.
The more often the Food Pyramid is used in nutrition curric-
ula, the more the companies whose interests it reflects benefit.
By linking the word “balance” to the Food Pyramid, the ideol-
ogy of the Pyramid is even more widely dispersed. This is par-
ticularly problematic considering how frequently “balance” is
used to discuss nutrition inside and outside curricula. By link-
ing the word balance to the Food Pyramid, these curricula shape
students’ understanding of the meaning of “balance” within
discussions of nutrition as a diet as an idea related to the Food
Pyramid and food groups regardless of the context of the word.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Although the interests of those involved with the meat, dairy,
and egg industries are perpetuated by the Food Pyramid and
“balance”, their influence is obscured by the legitimacy of the
less controversial entities that disseminate nutritional messages,
such as the USDA and the Institute of Medicine. Although
certain information and language about diet may seem legiti-
mate and a-political, especially considering the authority and
legitimacy of its creators, it actually furthers the interests of
certain factions of the food industry. This type of information
and language does its job best, in fact, because they obscure the
political interests of the industries they ultimately serve.
One striking element of these texts as a whole is their lack of
a clear explanation of vegetarianism, as well as their conflation
of veganism and vegetarianism. Three of the curricula address
vegetarianism briefly, and they all conflate veganism and vege-
tarianism in some way. Health, Nutrition, and P.E. discusses
vegetarians and vegetarians who do not eat animal byproducts,
but it emphasizes the ease of maintaining a diet that included
animal byproducts and health of vegetarians who consume
animal byproducts (Skrabanek, 2007: p. 77). Healthy Eating &
Exercise uses the words “vegetarianism” and “veganism” in-
terchangeably in its vegan section, and the curriculum does not
include information that distinguishes vegetarians and vegans
from each other (Davies & Humes, 2008: p. 59). Food Nutri-
tion & Invention defines a vegetarian as “a person who eats
only vegetable foods and refrains from eating meat” (Southall
& Wearing, 2007: p. 96). A person who only eats vegetable
foods is a vegan, while a person who refrains from eating meat
is a vegetarian. Yet this different is ignored. This conflation
could be avoided in each text if the authors included clearer
information about the difference between the two diets and
what the various rationales for participating in them are.
The texts largely shy away from discussing the ethics and
politics at play in abstaining from certain food sources. Healthy
Eating & Exercise, for example, chooses to discuss religions
that practice vegetarianism rather than discuss the health, envi-
ronmental, or ethical reasons to abstain from met or animal by-
products. The fact that the curricula are unwilling to address
vegetarian politics stands in sharp contrast to their implicit
adoption of the politics of the Food Pyramid. The structure of
the curriculum is influenced by the politics of food lobbies, and
the book shies away from discussing politics that might be un-
supportive of that influence. This tendency to avoid what ap-
pears political in the first three curricula stands in stark contrast
to the final curriculum. Not only does the final curriculum rely
on nutrition structures other than the Food Pyramid to discuss
diet, but it also addresses the food industry and ethics to a de-
gree. For example, it explains that most eggs come from battery
farms and the growing trend of fish farms (Southall & Wear-
ing, 2007: p. 14). The structure of this curriculum suggests that
food ethics can be successfully and meaningfully incorporated
into nutrition education.
After completing my research, I believe elementary school
nutritional curricula would benefit from using a dietary model
other than the Food Pyramid. They could perhaps focus on
nutrients instead of food groups. At the very least, curricula
could benefit from discussing the Food Pyramid as only one
possibility to maintain a healthy diet, and could explain other
viable alternative diets as equally valid options. De-emphasizing
the Food Pyramid would enable students to consider other types
of diets more seriously. Because I focused on vegetarianism, I
often had to overlook other parts of the curricula. An additional
study might examine the way other topics such as organic food,
locally grown food, food allergies, and food production are
Despite their portrayal in this set of curricula, vegetarians do
have many sources of protein and other nutrients to choose
from and this diet appears to have many health benefits (Ame-
rican Dietetic Association, 2009: p. 1266). Yet in these curric-
ula, vegetarianism is consistently placed within the protein-
focused sections. This implies that getting protein is the biggest
hurdle for vegetarians, and encourages readers to think about
vegetarianism in terms of what vegetarians do not eat rather
than what they do. Vegetarianism could be moved to a different
section of the curricula and be addressed in a different, more
positive context. For example, vegetarianism could be moved to
the f ruit a nd v ege ta ble s sec ti on of these texts and discussed as a
pro-plant diet, rather than as an anti-meat diet.
After coding and analyzing curricula sold throughout the DC
Metropolitan Area, I am not surprised that my sister thought I
would quickly die on a vegetarian diet. If this set of curricula
is any indication of the quality of information American chil-
dren receive about the health and practice of vegetarianism, my
sister’s worries are quite understandable. The curricula are struc-
tured almost exclusively on the Food Pyramid and the related
code word “balance”, and their food-based (rather than nutri-
tion-based) approaches obscure the full information students
could have access to. Quite simply, vegetarianism is largely in-
compatible with the structure of a Food Pyramid-based cur-
riculum even though it is a nutritionally viable diet. It is under-
standable for teachers to rely on the nutrition guidelines the
government produces, but Marion Nestle makes the convincing
point that these guidelines are not neutral or apolitical. Rather,
they are a reflection of industry interests. A curriculum that fol-
lows the guidelines of the Food Pyramid better suits the eco-
nomic interests of certain factions of the food industry rather
than the nutrition and health interests of the public. Simply,
what is good for business is not always what is good for your
body. Corporate lobbies, then, rather than dispassionate scien-
tists and nutritionists are guiding children’s nutrition education.
Analyzing these curricula’s portrayal of vegetarianism supports
Nestle’s work by showing the way corporate interests may be
obscured by apparently legitimate and uninterested producers.
However, corporate interests are actually amplified according
to the frequency, exclusivity, and scale the Food Pyramid is
used to teach new generations a bout diet and health.
The author would like to thank Ivy Ken for her support, cri-
tique, and insight. Her guidance made all the difference in this
paper’s direction and content.
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