Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Should the government allow industry to market to kids in schools?

 

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Last week I found out about a new food literacy initiative. According to the introduction to their online survey (which unfortunately only wants input from teachers, principals, and board of education consultants) this initiative will involve visits to schools to provide hands-on healthy eating education opportunities. This initiative is an undertaking of the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

I am all for getting food literacy education back into schools. I think that by educating children from a young age about growing, harvesting, preparing, and enjoying food we could prevent a lot of the unhealthy eating habits and chronic diseases that are so prevalent in our society. However, I don’t think that this should be done by any means necessary, and I see the provision of food literacy education by industry as highly problematic.

This is nothing against milk, or the Dairy Farmers of Canada. Milk is a nutritious food and can (although it doesn’t have to) be part of a healthy diet. I love lots of dairy products. I still don’t think that it’s appropriate for Dairy Farmers of Canada to be providing nutrition education in public schools.

From the Dairy Farmers of Canada website:

Run for farmers by farmers, Dairy Farmers of Canada is the voice of Canadian dairy farmers.

Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) is the national policy, lobbying and promotional organization representing Canada’s farmers living on approximately 12,000 dairy farms. DFC strives to create stable conditions for the Canadian dairy industry, today and in the future. It works to maintain policies that foster the viability of Canadian dairy farmers and promote dairy products and their health benefits.

Dairy farmers fund its operations, including promotional activities.

I think that makes it pretty clear what their mandate is. It’s not to provide unbiased nutrition education to children. It’s to promote their products to consumers. Make no mistake about it, that’s what they would be doing by providing food literacy education to children in schools. They would be marketing to the next generation of consumers.

Would it be appropriate for Coca Cola, McDonald’s, or Frito-Lay to provide food literacy education to a captive group of school children? Just imagine if KFC announced that it would be providing food literacy education to children in schools. Parents and the public would be freaking out. It’s no more acceptable for the dairy industry to be given access to children in schools just because some dairy products are nutritious. It’s highly inappropriate, not to mention ironic, for any food industry lobby group to be marketing to children in schools whether it be under the guise of food literacy education or not.

 

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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.