Seems like the latest food coverage is all about school lunches and fast food. This sudden nutrition-minded media avalanche seemingly came out of nowhere just like the whole low-carb craze. And yet, because the answer isn't going to be "eat all the beef and bacon you want, just skip the bun," I doubt if the message will take hold as deeply as the last food fad. The other worry I have is that this new awareness will be just that, a fad, and we'll be onto the next thing in a year or two.
The thing is, this is not a fad. This issue, the tripling of the obesity rate among our children, is the end result of forty years of shifts in our culture, our food system, and in our own behaviors and lifestyle.
Forty years. My life span. And, though it makes me feel old, I have to admit a lot has changed. I was in the first generation that watched Sesame Street, Zoom and Electric Company. These shows were on PBS and the only "commercials" were Schoolhouse Rock segments and public service messages for kids. The one I remember most was this dancing slice of cheese that wore cowboy boots and a hat and sang, "Have yerself a hunka, a slab, a slice, a chunka, have yerself a hunka CHHEEEEESE!" The message was about choosing healthy snacks.
These days, public television does not have enough funding and many shows are underwritten by sponsors who are allowed logoed messages. Sesame Street is currently supported in part by McDonald's and Kellogg's Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops. The same issue, lack of sufficient funding, has also opened the doors of our schools to fast food and soft drink entities.
The family Disney movie of the 70s was only on once a week when I was old enough to stay up in the evening. Now Disney and several other stations like Nickelodean have 24/7 programming. Kids today have an abundance of media options in addition to movies, video games and internet. More reasons than ever to stay rooted to the couch.
Of the commercials broadcast to fund this kid-targeted media, approximately half of them are for food and beverages like sweetened cereals, sweetened soft drinks, candies, processed snack foods and fast food. Yet, television, radio, print, billboards and internet advertising together account for only 20 percent of the annual $10 billion spent on food marketing to children. The other 80 percent is spent on less obvious tactics.
Our lifestyles have changed dramatically. While my latchkey status was a relatively new thing in the 70s, many families today have two working parents or a working single parent. Between the parents' schedule and an endless parade of activities, the family meal is no longer a given. Nearly one-third of families seldom eat together for an evening meal.
Our food industry has changed dramatically. I can remember the first Taco Bell that went in to a city near me when I was 11. Fast food was a novel experience, eating out was rare. Today, nearly one-third or more of our children's calories are consumed outside the home. Half of these meals are from restaurants and fast food restaurants. Even when we eat at home, much of the foods we buy and consume are processed. Quite often these items comprise the majority of our shopping cart. Up to 17,000 new processed foods are introduced to consumers each year, according to Michael Pollan's article, "Unhappy Meals."
The burden of all of these changes, our dangerous legacy, has fallen at the feet of our nation's children. My child. Your child. The outward signs of these seemingly unrelated changes in our culture have had a very real and measurable impact as noted by the Institute of Medicine:
- Our children's diets contain more calories than required to meet their needs.
- These same calories, while excessive, do not meet nutrition requirements
- Our children's consumption of fats, saturated fats, added sugars, sodium and empty carbohydrates exceed dietary recommendations.
- Infant and toddler diets commonly contain sweetened beverages and foods as well as fried potatoes. These same young children do not consume enough leafy green vegetables.
- Older children and adolescents consume double the recommended amounts of added sugars in their diets. Sweetened beverages account for a major source of these added sugars.
- Milk consumption has declined. Most children do not get an adequate intake of calcium.
- Consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains are not adequate enough to meet the recommended daily servings for most children.
- Foods consumed outside the home now account for nearly a third of our children's diets.
The future ahead
The most startling facts about the situation are clear when you look forward to the next 40 years if the trends continue. Currently one million 12-19-year-olds have been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. If obesity levels continue at the current rate, the lifetime risk for a girl to be diagnosed with Type II diabetes is 40 percent. For boys, it is 30 percent. Conditions related to Type II diabetes including blindness, coronary artery disease, stroke and kidney failure may become ordinary conditions in middle age.
The good news in the situation — and we can use some — is that the flood of publicity on the topic has built awareness, and hopefully lasting changes, not just another fad. From awareness must come action. The source of this action cannot be from our governments, from the food industry and media with profits at stake, or even from our schools. Too much is at risk for us to wait for those institutions to change. The change must come from us.
As Ghandi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." If we do this, we can change the situation.
The next article in this series will be "Our Children Are What They Eat." It will cover the current health, diet and eating patterns for our children. As the series progresses, it will provide more insight into what all the factors are that shape children's food preferences, the role of food marketing, and steps each of us can take to change the situation.