Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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A “no seconds” policy will only feed disordered eating habits

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When I saw the headline “Could enforcing a ‘no seconds’ policy at dinner time help combat childhood obesity?” I thought “I hope this isn’t as awful as I think it’s going to be”. I’m sorry to say that it was every bit as awful as it sounded, and then some.

I was horrified to read the following in the first paragraph: “doctors are warning that parents should ban their children from second helpings to protect them from becoming overweight”. It didn’t get any better. This suggestion was based on research by a behavioural obesity researcher. The crux of her argument being that children are becoming overweight and obese because their parents are allowing them to stuff their greedy little faces at mealtimes. She is quoted as saying: “all parents should be being vigilant about portion control, so a no seconds policy” so, unfortunately, it would seem that her opinions are not being misrepresented.

Apparently the reason that many children are becoming overweight and obese is because they’re eating 12 more calories at every meal than they need. I’d just like to point out that if this were in fact the case, then these children would not be getting sufficient calories for healthy growth and development if they were denied seconds as a second helping of nearly anything would likely exceed 12 calories. Twelve calories of most foods would amount to a minuscule quantity.

According to Dr Llewellyn (the researcher mentioned above), “Some children are unable to regulate what they eat for themselves and many will not turn down food, even if they are not hungry”. Indeed, there are some children with genetic disorders, such as Prader-Willi Syndrome who are constantly hungry. However, disorders such as PWS affect about 1 out of every 15, 000 children born. That’s nowhere near the third of children estimated to be overweight or obese.

I think that enforcing no seconds policies will only lead to increased rates of disordered eating. Most children are born with the innate ability to eat when they are hungry and stop eating when they are full. Most children unlearn this ability as they get older and are encouraged by parents to clean their plates, are bombarded by food advertisements, observe the eating habits of family members, are served excessively large portions at meals, are offered treats and snacks throughout the day, etc.

More important than a theoretical excess 12 calories at each meal that a child may or may not be consuming is the formation of a healthy relationship to food. Arbitrarily placing limits on servings at mealtime will only feed an unhealthy relationship with food. This sort of thing teaches children not to trust their hunger cues, having the opposite of the intended effect. It teaches children that food is emotionally wrought. Denying hungry children food teaches them that they cannot trust their appetites and may also teach them that their self worth is measured on the scale. Pretty much the definition of an unhealthy relationship with food.

Rather than making mealtimes a minefield, parents should be role modelling healthy attitudes and eating habits. They should be providing their children with nutritionally balanced meals at regular times and allowing their children to decide when they’re full. Whether that mean that they leave food on their plates or ask for more.


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What good can come out of teachers acting as food police?

 

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School lunch in Korea photo by Cali4Beach on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Last week I read an article in the Toronto Star about Toronto-area parents outrage at teachers allegedly policing children’s lunches. Of course, this sort of thing is contrary to school nutrition policies which apply only to food served in schools (and from what I’ve heard are rarely adhered to anyway which is a whole other kettle of fish). Teachers should never be policing students lunches. That sort of behaviour is completely inappropriate and could easily lead to disordered eating in children. Fellow RD Abby Langer covers more of the concerns in her column in the Huffington Post.

I’m sure that teachers weren’t allowed to speak to the press about the issue and that’s why the article only quoted parents and school board administration. I do think that’s a shame because I can’t help but wonder if at least some of these situations were simply a lack of communication. We are talking about young children telling their parents what their teachers allegedly said to them. There could be some distortion like you see in the telephone game that we played as children. The message starts as one thing at the beginning and by the time it reaches the end of the “line” it doesn’t even remotely resemble the original message. I’d like to see the teachers be given at least a little bit of the benefit of the doubt and I think it’s a real shame that we didn’t get to hear their side of the story.

Regardless of what’s been happening here I think this provides a great opportunity to talk about how this situation could be improved. We know that many kids are going to school with nutritionally lacking lunches and snacks. We know that school nutrition policies aren’t working. Why not start talking about implementing a national school lunch program? As one parent in the Star article said, “Unless the school wants to provide lunches, I don’t really think it’s their business.” Why not have the schools provide lunches for all the children? A national publicly funded school lunch program could provide children with nutritious, balanced lunches as well as an opportunity for education.

My boyfriend showed me a portion of Michael Moore’s latest documentary on Netflix, Who to Invade Next. In it we saw children in France being served lunch as if they were in a restaurant. Each school had a chef who planned the menus (I think with the input of a dietitian) and prepared the food. The children had a full hour for lunch and it was treated in the same manner as any other subject at school. Learning to appreciate food and interacting with fellow students and cafeteria staff was seen as just as valuable as math and science.

If every school treated lunch as an educational opportunity and provided students with nutritious lunches then this issue of teachers acting as food police would be moot. It would also help to provide a degree of equity to students so that no matter the circumstances at home every student would have the same balanced lunch.


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If children were plants

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I cannot believe the absurdity of things like this. While the message is good, don’t give your children sugary drinks, the approach is ridiculous. Are they sincerely suggesting that human children are comparable to plants? If I still had photoshop I would change it to show the plant being offered fertilizer (or sunshine) and the child being offered salad. Or replace the plant with a pet cat or dog being offered pet food. I can’t imagine any parent (except possibly if the guy who made soylent has kids) thinking that it’s a good idea to give their children exactly the same food at every meal.

Let’s stop making silly comparisons that undermine messages. Children are not plants.


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Restaurant rehab: Kill the Kid’s Menus

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You know what sucks? Kid’s menus. In theory they make sense; children generally don’t eat as much as adults and it’s nice for parents to have less expensive options when eating out with their kids. In practice, however, they suck. Most kid’s menus offer processed and fried bland options. When you think of a kid’s menu what do you think of? I usually come up with burgers, chicken fingers, pasta, and lots of french fries.

Children don’t need entirely different options from adults. They can handle spice and flavour. They’re also highly susceptible to suggestion. If you imply to kids that they’re not going to like something or it might be too spicy for them they’re far more likely to confirm those suggestions. They’ll live up (or down) to expectations.

I know that kids can be fussy. Just ask my mum. I could spot a speck of onion a mile away. I don’t think that this should mean that they should be offered entirely separate meal options from adults, whether at home or at a restaurant. What kind of a lesson does that teach children? What kind of eaters does that mean we’ll be raising? Another generation of people with unadventurous palates that prefer bland, processed, fried foods. More people who dislike vegetables and think that a meal can be complete with the only sign of a vegetable being ketchup, and maybe a tiny cup of mayonnaise laden coleslaw.

Restaurant owners and chefs, please consider the nutritional balance of meals. Both for children and adults. It’s not a meal without vegetables. And no, ketchup is not a vegetable. Please consider eschewing traditional kid’s menus and simply offer smaller plates of adult meals with kid-friendly names. We need to stop teaching kids that they won’t like flavourful nutritious food.


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When is a strawberry not a strawberry?: The marketing of food to children

Photo credit: Dr Dan Flanders. Thanks for the blogspiration!

Photo credit: Dr Dan Flanders. Thanks for the blogspiration!

One of my twitter friends recently posted the photo shown above and asked his followers to discuss the marketing of healthy foods; i.e. fruits and vegetables to children. My immediate reaction was to say that this was at least a better practice than the ubiquitous marketing of “junk” food to children. At least these popular characters are promoting something that parents and healthcare professionals are always trying to get kids to eat more of. Maybe if mum can’t get her child to eat a carrot Bugs Bunny can (I don’t know if kids even know who Bugs Bunny is these days but you know what I mean). Then I thought about it a little bit more.

Do strawberries really need TV characters to get kids to eat them? Strawberries are fairly popular amongst all ages, no? What about the leafy greens, the root vegetables, the mushrooms? Who benefits from this type of marketing? Not the children who aren’t gaining exposure to new foods. Not the parents who now have to deal with their children demanding expensive out-of-season fruit. Not the farmer who makes very little of the actual retail price of her/his product. Some marketing company I suppose.

What about all the other strawberries? Even if you argue that this type of marketing is getting kids to consume more fruit the fact is, it’s only getting children to consume more of one specific brand of one specific variety of fruit. What impact might this have on local farmers who don’t have kid-friendly characters on their packaging? This type of marketing does nothing to support local in-season fruit and vegetable consumption.

Besides the strawberries and the farmers does this type of marketing harm children? Possibly. As many argued after the Eat Right! debacle of putting the Academy of Dietetics logo on processed cheese slices, dietitians shouldn’t be lending their name to any food. Healthy eating isn’t about any one particular food, it’s about the broader diet. Putting a dietetic organization’s logo on a food product is not only a vote for that single food, it’s a vote against all of the other foods that don’t feature the logo. In a similar vein, marketing of specific foods to children promotes those foods and those foods alone. It makes food more about sales and marketing than it does about health and enjoyment. We don’t need to bombard children with more messages to consume (both in a figurative and in a literal sense) than we already do. Let’s make food more about food and less about profit.