Thursday, March 29, 2007

Blogs that Make Me Think




Hey, I got tagged. Many thanks to Frugal Mom who has designated this blog to be one that makes her think. As part of my new honor, I am tasked with identifying five worthy blogs that make me think and awarding them. With 57 million blogs out there, the real problem is getting it down to five! But here goes:

First and second awards go along with a big thank you to Jen Maiser both for her Life Begins at 30 (I LOVE that url although I would say life just gets better at 40) and for her starting the Eat Local Challenge site. This site has been mentioned in Time magazine twice, most recently in the cover issue on buying local foods. I was lucky enough to bump into her in the huge online world, and luckier for her to deem me worthy to participate in the challenge site as one of the 60-plus authors. It's been a remarkable experience. Thank you so much, Jen.

Not that she needs more promotion, but Heidi Swanson's 101cookbooks.com is a great reminder to me to create simple, healthy recipes from whole foods. It inspires me and reaffirms my commitment to eating local, fresh and healthy.

Mother Talkers. All of them. Not only does the site cover far more than just parent topics, this communal blog is the most supportive community I have ever encountered. The site allows you to rate comments, but no one does it. They can't imagine why you would want to do that when you can just talk and share. It's that good.

A recent find is Scribbit. I think she defines the true spirit of mom blogging. She created a mom blog specific search engine and offers it free to all who want it. Her site is a mix of recipes, tips, lists and creative ideas, and humor.

I could keep going on. There are so many good writers and good sites. Finding them amidst the chaos is not always easy, but having such a huge library at one's fingertips is an amazing gift.

Now, it's back to the series I've been working on! Part II of the Food Marketing to Your Child is nearly complete and will be up tonight.

Food Marketing and Your Child

Part I, The Small Screen with Big Impact

It’s great timing for this last segment of my series on childhood nutrition. The Kaiser Family Foundation just released its report, “Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States.”

The report echoes much of the information in the Institute of Medicine’s book, Food Marketing to Children and Youth. Both are good reads for parents. The Kaiser report focuses mainly on television ads to children. The numbers are equally as frightening as obesity statistics. For example, based on a national average viewing time of four hours per day for a child, over a year’s time he is exposed to nearly 30,000 commercials.

That statistic is based on the maximum regulated amount of commercials that can be shown during an hour of programming. Not all networks adhere to this maximum. In 2004, children’s network Nickelodean violated this regulation 591 times. They were fined $1 million, far less than the amount netted from the additional commercials.

The biggest ethical void, however, is that much of the television programming and commercials are aimed at younger children who are unable to differentiate the marketing messages from the program content. Given that most of these ads are fun, fast-paced and use licensed or branded characters, the similarity between the two makes this differentiation even harder to distinguish. In other words, young children absorb the commercials as easily and readily as the program content. Thus, selling candy to a baby is easier than taking candy from a baby.

Some other disturbing statistics include the fact that nearly one-third of children under the age of six have a television in their bedroom. Two-thirds of children aged eight and older have a television in their bedrooms. Between the ages of two and four, children view approximately two hours of television per day. This increases throughout childhood and peaks at adolescence. Tweens and teens begin to replace television use with internet use, or will multi-task, watching television while online.

Possibly the most depressing statistic in the mix is this: sixty percent of all the meals families eat together (and those are not many) are eaten with the television on.

Of all the commercials that children are exposed to, nearly half are for food items such as sweetened cereals, candy, soda, and fast food. Not surprisingly, these four categories represent the top items purchased directly by children and teens. Children aged four to fourteen spent $30 billion of their own money. Teens aged twelve to nineteen spent $175 billion. One-third of this money was spent on candy, snacks, fast food and breakfast cereals. Although there is not definitive evidence that the heavy marketing drives the demand, there is definitely a correlation.

This amount represents a significant market alone. However, the lure of marketing to children is that they represent a marketing triple play. Children make direct purchases as a primary consumer. They also influence the purchase decisions of the household for an estimated $500 billion annually. The purchase category most influenced is food. Nearly 80 percent of children have major influence over food choices for the family. Third, children represent the future market of adults for a given brand. Setting purchase preference and brand loyalty early is key to sustaining this future market.

While the spotlight is cast on the television screen with this new report, it is important to remember that of the $12 billion spent marketing food products to children, only twenty percent of this is for all measured media, meaning television, print, radio, and internet advertising. Twenty percent.

So, where does the other eighty percent go? Nearly half of that goes to trade promotion, other spending is for licensing of recognized characters and celebrities, event marketing, embedded marketing and promotions, product placement, co-branded toys and premiums, and marketing in schools.

I will cover these types of marketing and how they impact children in Part II of this topic. The final part will cover what we parents can do to counterbalance the food marketing efforts and to prevent childhood obesity in our own communities.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Why Kids Eat What They Do (or Don't)

Part II: Outside Influences

I first started this article series when I realized how many other influences there are on my child’s diet. I was trying to buy plastic food and a grocery cart for my child. The amount of branded fast food "toys" and junk food options were astounding.

Up to this point, I had had the illusion of control. What hit me like a ton of bricks, as I stood in the toy kitchen and food aisle, was how brief that period of control really was.

While we parents are still a primary influence on our child’s diet, there are many other sources of influence that enter a child’s life at least by age three, and sooner if your child attends a day care or has other outside-of-home care, or even just goes out for an occasional play date and has a snack or lunch. There are also less direct, and less obvious sources of influence. These include marketing, schools, neighborhood characteristics, the restaurant industry, and even the food system as a whole complete with government impacts.

Parents versus peers
A study by L.L. Birch in 1999 found that as young as preschool children would begin to like certain vegetables if they saw their peers eat them. This would be great, if it were just vegetables. Personally, I live in fear of the first birthday party that offers soda, the first sleep-over with a trip to McDonald’s for dinner. It’s inevitable. All I can do is hope that the healthy choices I provide will ultimately win out.

The good news is, parental influence still rates higher than peers even as children grow up. Parents and their children share 76-87 percent of food likes. But only 19 percent of shared likes occurred among adolescent friendships. Most of these preferences shared with peers were for snack foods.

Child-care Facilities and Schools
I’ll be the first to say I am less than thrilled with the menu at my child’s care facility. Lunch items include things like Tater Tot Casserole, Cheesy Potatoes, Beanie Weenies, and Hot Dog Tacos. The emphasis on cheap meats, starchy vegetables and high-fat, processed cheese is discouraging. The problem for many of these institutions is that they are working with limited staff, prepared and canned foods, and a limited set of food likes by most of the kids they are cooking for. It all adds up to the lowest common denominator of meal choices with the most appeal.

Despite what I feed my child at home, she will be fed the same foods as children who regularly eat fast food, “will only eat Mac and Cheese,” and are not served or encouraged to eat vegetables at home.

Because many of these care facilities and schools are private, nutrition information is not available. For those participating in national lunch, breakfast and food programs, reports show that foods served generally meet 60-70 percent of daily nutrition requirements and calorie requirements. However, the reported foods exceeded dietary guidelines for saturated fat.

As recently as 2005, a sampling of schools in 27 states and 11 major urban areas showed that between 80 to 90 percent of secondary schools allow children to purchase foods from vending machines, snack bars, cafeterias and school stores.

The good news is that things are improving. Rather than waiting on federal regulations, many states and individual school districts have set nutritional standards higher than those mandated by the federal government. Other tactics that schools are taking to improve the situation include; a ban on sale of all carbonated soft drinks on all California school districts that will be in place by 2009, and a mandate that all fundraising activities be nonfood as well as eliminating all branded fast food contracts by the Los Angeles school district.

More similar legislation is pending at the state and school district levels. This legislation would include standards for limiting portion sizes, a requirement to have healthy food choices at all school events, eliminating fried foods from menus, requiring more servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, and even penalizing schools financially for every meal that is lost to competitive food sales.

Clearly, the changes required in our care and education institutions are going to happen at a local level first. These changes will only continue at the insistence of parents and our active involvement in improving both the menus as school and at home.

Location, Location, Location
One of the biggest factors that determines our children’s diets is the food that is available. Studies show that children will eat healthier food choices if those choices are the primary ones available to them in the home, and away from home. Fast food chains are well aware of the value of proximity.

This is why it should come as no surprise that in a study on Chicago area schools, fast food franchises were clustered within walking distance of the schools 3 to 4 times more densely than the average across the city in general.

Nutritious choices were also less available to poorer neighborhoods with a higher population of African Americans than for more affluent areas. Similar imbalances were found for access to supermarkets and grocery stores as well as the variety and number of healthy options at retail locations. There is a significant relationship between easy access to supermarkets and increased nutrient intake.

A Broken Food Chain
An analysis on the food supply in general for America was done in 1996. The finding was that the food system as a whole did not match dietary recommendations. It contained more grains, fats and sugars than recommended and had too little fruits, vegetables and meats and dairy.

Each year, 17,000 new food products are introduced. Most of these products are processed foods because those are the foods that have the most profit. In fact, 80 cents of each American food dollar pays not for food, but for processing, distribution, labor, packaging, marketing and transportation. Minimally processed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables provide lower profits and are thus not heavily marketed or branded.

The amount and types of foods available are not completely dependent on consumer choices. Government subsidies of large-scale agriculture as well as taxes and regulation directly impact the production of certain types of foods over others, as well as the costs of those foods. This partially explains some of the abundant use of corn and soy products, including the widespread use of high-fructose corn syrup in many foods.

Here is an interesting perspective on this issue from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's site. It's a PDF of a report titled, "Food Without Thought: How the U.S. Farm Policy Contributes to Obesity." You can also find a link to the article and a fact sheet at the IATP site, www.iatp.org.

Culture Clash
Culturally, our population is exposed to unrealistic body images in the media; television, movies, print, Internet. The irony is, many of these messages are sponsored by advertisement of fast foods, soda, and processed foods.

Approximately half of the commercials appearing during children’s programs are for branded foods and beverages, especially sweetened cereals and drinks, snack items, soft drinks, candy and fast food.

The food industry spends an estimated $10 billion (with a b) a year in food advertising specifically to children and youth. Only 20 percent of this amount is devoted to television and other media. The rest is used for promotional tactics such as character licensing, product placement, and in-school marketing.

As a result of such heavy marketing pressure and tie-ins to familiar child-friendly characters, on average, a child’s first request for a specific product now occurs at about two years of age. This request occurs at the supermarket 75 percent of the time. In a study of children 3-11 years of age, more than half of specific product requests during a 30-day period were for food. Foods such as desserts, candy, and sweetened cereal accounted for nearly 50 percent of the requested food items.

By the time a child reaches first grade, he is familiar with about 200 different brands. This brand awareness is developed first for such items as cereals, snacks and toys. Logically, these categories are the ones most heavily marketed to children.

It’s a lot to think about standing in the aisle of Toys ‘R Us trying to select plastic food. It’s a lot to think about as a consumer, and most importantly as a parent. Choose wisely.

Childhood Nutrition Series

The following articles are posted currently for the childhood nutrition series. Part II of the Why Kids Eat What They Do (or Don't) will be posted this afternoon.

The State of Our Union's Children
A detailed overview of what trends are occurring in our children's diets, and the factors that contribute to the issues

Our Children Are What They Eat

A look at what our children are eating and the nutritional issues parents face.

Why Kids Eat What They Do (or Don't)
A look at all the sources of dietary influence on our children's food choices. This includes schools, parents, social activity, marketing, culture. The post will examine each contributing factor and how it affects our kids.

Food Marketing and Your Child
A Parent's Action List: We Shall Overcome
This topic belongs under the sources post, but it has become such a huge issue that it needs to be reviewed in depth. An estimated $10 billion is spent anually to market foods to children and youth. Often these marketing messages are targeted to pre-schoolers who are too young to be able to differentiate commercial messages from educational messages.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Persistence and Kale














There is a most profound duality that resides in the psyche of our toddlers. Their little attention spans spring from one thing to the next so quickly. One minute you have your child focused on helping get dressed, the next thing you know, the clothes are off and she's running naked after the cat brandishing salad tongs.

And yet. Yet. This same child will persist incomparably in asking you the same question a hundred times if needed to hear the answer she wants.

"More cracker?'
"No. All gone."
"Cracker?"
"No. Sorry."
"More!"
"No, more honey."
"More cracker?"
"No more cracker."
"Craaaaaackkerrrrrr..."

And so on. Until you crack. You think, why has she not taken salad tongs or a stray meat fork and run after the family pet by now? For a moment I consider handing her the nearest kitchen utensil and pointing at the cat peacefully sleeping on the couch. For a moment. The cat has been through enough.

This is why, in my recent posts on parents' role in our children's diets, the persistence part made sense. Yes, it can take fourteen times to get a new food introduced. What was the other study? Ah, yes, ten times a day with red pepper. Makes sense. Repetition.

I have to say, I am still a bit gun shy post-spinach-incident on raw leafy greens until my local market in spring. All these dishes cook the greens.

So, with The Battle of Orange Food behind us, I am now applying my newfound information to the vegetable type that fewer than ten percent of kids age 1-5 consume — leafy greens. So far, I am doing well. Three recipes in, two tried, one has become a favorite.

A couple you have seen in the recipe index (the theme IS persistence) and one is new. There will be more leafy greens. Count on it. And get your salad tongs ready.










Kale Chips

Garlicky white beans and kaleSauteed Red Chard with Clementine Sections, Feta, and Balsamic Reduction

Looking for these recipes? They will be part of a book co-authored with Ali at Cleaner Plate Club!

Okay, the nutrition series will continue, but I needed a quick recipe break. The next post in that series will be cover peers, schools, and outside influences on your child's diet.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Why Kids Eat What They Do (or Don't)

Part I of II: Parents' Influence on Diet

There are several sources of influence on our children’s eating behaviors. Genetics play a small role, parent and family influence, social relationships, neighborhood, community, institutional (schools), as well as large-scale influences like culture, food systems, economics and marketing.

Let’s start with the same source of primary influence that a child’s experience begins with: the parents. Genetically and physiologically, our children inherit a few food-related traits such as the ability to sense hunger, appetite and fullness. Children also possess the ability to sense smell, sight, and taste of food items, and for our systems to respond to the chemical signals from compounds like insulin, glucose and peptides.

Inheritable “taste” preferences are limited, with the most common trait being an aversion to bitterness that is displayed by less tolerance for vegetables such as broccoli, and a stronger affinity for sweet and fatty foods. So, you can blame your spouse for producing a child less likely to eat broccoli. Now, room-cleaning, math skills, athletic ability, I will leave those to you parents to debate. Back to food.

Children seem to inherently possess a preference for sweet foods, fat and salty tastes while avoiding bitter or irritating tastes. They are likely to be neophobic, or afraid of new foods instinctively. In many cases this trait endures through adulthood. Parental response to this particular set of preferences, such as only serving foods children immediately “like” or foods that appeal to just these preferences can foster some very unhealthy food and intake preferences in the long run, re: Happy Meal Mongers.

The interesting thing is that all of these signals, even the inherent food preferences, can be altered or overridden by environmental and psychological influence. In fact, research has shown that of all the factors that influence diet preferences, it is these genetic preferences that are the weakest.

The strongest influence on food preferences? Exposure to a given food. Simply put, children can and will learn to like healthy foods if parents are persistent. Conversely, if served a limited and unhealthy diet, this will become a child’s preference.

Nutrition studies show that repeated exposure will overcome even the strongest of food preferences, the desire for sweet. New research (Menella et. Al.) also suggests that a fetus’ experiences with food flavors in the amniotic fluid can help encourage acceptance and enjoyment for similar foods later on. This is encouraging news since pregnancy is the only period of our parental experience where we do have full control over our child’s diet. This new finding gives women all the more reason to maintain a healthy diet during pregnancy.

Early childhood marks the foundation years for a child’s food preferences. In fact, many of these preferences and food-related behaviors are set as early as age two, with few of these preferences changing even after the next five years. Indeed, the number of foods a child will like at age eight can be predicted from the number of foods they eat at age four. Even at age four, however, some of a child’s preferences are for foods not introduced by parents. Beyond age two (and those parents going through “terrible two’s” would say during) external influences enter the picture. As I am coming to realize, It’s a narrow window for us parents, a very narrow window.

For the first year, feeding time is a central component of the parent-child relationship, a shared experience that not only nourishes, but establishes trust and a sense of security. As table foods are introduced, and as children ages 1-5 experience rapid intellectual and physical development, food behaviors and preferences move away from this complete dependence to a need for more control. We parents have all heard it; yes, it’s the dreaded phrase: “I do it!” This particular phase can be the backdrop to a tableside power struggle that is all about control and nothing to do with food.

This newfound independence has an associated set of food behaviors. There is the fear of anything new known as neophobia, Better known to parents as Vegaphobia, or, in my case, The Battle of Orange Foods. Next, there is the tendency to favor only certain foods as exemplified by the week-long Mac-n-Cheese strike many of us parents encounter.

And, perhaps the strangest of all, the odd anxiety created by having foods on the same plate touch. For this last one, the answer is as simple as a $1.99 melamine “lunch tray” available at Target. For the other two, well, those are only solved by endurance and perseverance. Whoever said parenting is for the weak? Those of you prepared for battle, read on.

It is a battle of inches, and a few inches forward one day only to fall back the next. The goal is a finish line way off in the distance, and in between all we can do is try and have a balanced diet in them over the course of a week. The reasons kids do not like a certain vegetable often has nothing to do with the vegetable itself. Among these reasons are the inherited sensitivity to bitter tastes, bland preparation, or negative conditioning attached to the food as in the parental classic, “If you don’t eat your vegetables, you can’t have dessert.”

In the latter context, the target food becomes an obstacle in the path of a desire, not a good context. At this point, you, the parent, are conditioning your child to dislike that vegetable even more. Healthy encouragement to try new foods without punishment or a controlling context, and a positive eating environment are key ingredients for raising a healthy eater.

Other key ingredients to the resolving the situation are persistence and a well-stocked pantry. In one study, children were given ten exposures a day to the taste of a new vegetable, red pepper. The study showed that frequency of exposure led to increased liking and consumption of the vegetable. Similar results were seen when the same vegetable was presented to a group of kids once a day for fourteen consecutive days. Fourteen. Seems like it would be a challenge to figure out fourteen dishes, or even ten different ways to get red pepper on a plate without including it in every dish plus a couple desserts. Suddenly, it all sounds more like an episode of Iron Chef than a family dinner.

While you don’t have to be an Iron Chef, creativity and a bit of research on all the ways to prepare a given food item can certainly make things easier, and even an enjoyable cooking challenge for parents — if they like cooking.

Finally, the most important ingredient is you. In fact, the strongest predictor of fruit and vegetable consumption by children ages 2-6 is the amount of these foods that are consumed by the parents. It makes a lot of sense. Why would a child want to eat a food that no one else wants to eat? You, yes, you have to eat your vegetables, too. This role modeling is important, both for direct learning, “this is what we eat,” and indirect role modeling, “new foods are a fun adventure, it is healthy to eat well, and these foods are enjoyable.”

Of course in order to model good food behavior, you also have to eat with your children. Family dinners are important both for nutrition and social reasons. Significant numbers of separate studies have found that regular family meals at home are associated with a healthier diet and a tendency for kids to make better grades and be less likely to try drugs and alcohol.

Importantly, if parents are maintaining a healthy diet, it means that the foods available in the home include healthy choices. Children are pretty much a captive audience, at least for the first few years. They will learn to eat what is in the home — even if it is not their favorite.

Some additional, helpful resources on the topic are listed below:
Eric Schlosser's "Super Healthy, Not Supersize" on Epicurious.com
Marion Nestle's "What to Eat" links
Dr. Sears' "Feeding Toddlers" 17 Tips for Pleasing the Picky Eater
(This is NOT, however, a recommendation for Juice Plus or any products he sells). The tips are good. Talk to your doctor about any supplements for your child.

Part II of this article will cover the other influences on food choices that we parents have to deal with including; social relationships, neighborhood, community, institutional (schools), as well as large-scale influences like culture, food systems, economics and marketing.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Eating Better than Organic

A quick break from the childhood nutrition series, then back to that. I had to post an update on the following. Time magazine's cover article (COVER!) is on the issue of eating local versus big organic. While it's nice to see the mainstream media embracing the issue, it's pretty amazing to see it on the cover of Time.

As an added bonus, the article mentions (and links to online) the web site I have been participating on as an author, www.eatlocalchallenge.com. This is the second time the site has had a mention in the news magazine, but the first cover story.

My sincere congrats to Jen at lifebeginsat30.com (love the url!) who started the eatlocalchallenge and found all of us authors hanging out in various blogs.

It's a good day for all of us locavores!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Our Children are What They Eat

Overall Trends
We’re eating too much of the wrong things and too little of the right things. That statement is true of the population in general, but particularly true for our children. The top 10 sources of calorie intake for the U.S. population include such items as soft drinks, sweetened cereal, desserts and white breads, chips, ice cream and white potatoes.

Saturated fats comprise about 12 percent of our children’s diets as well as nearly double the recommended amounts of added sugars, which comprise another 20 percent of daily calorie intake.

In all age groups of children 2 to 18 years old, the majority is not meeting daily nutritional requirements. Foods that showed a decline in consumption include milk, vegetables and legumes, and nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains, nuts and leafy greens.

Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers
Of the age groups studies, infants and toddlers had the best nutritional content in their diets, primarily due to formula/breast milk and the content of introductory foods like pureed vegetables. Preschoolers even showed an increase in servings for whole grains and some nutritious foods.

Even so, the FITS (Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study) showed that up to one-third of infants and toddlers aged 7-24 months did not consume a serving of vegetables or fruit. Fewer than 10 percent consumed leafy green vegetables, which accounts for a shortage of vitamin E in their diets. 46-62 percent did consume a fruit juice, many of which exceeded the 6oz per day serving size recommended by the American Academy of Pediatricians. Diets of the children who drank more then the recommended amounts of fruit juice showed an inadequate intake of calcium due to the decrease in milk consumption.

As the children in this group aged, the quality of their diet declined. Consumption of foods such as white potatoes increased. French fries were the third most consumed vegetable at age 9-11 months, second most consumed vegetable at 12-14 months, and the most consumed vegetable at ages 15 months and up.

The consumption of desserts also increased from 10 percent of infants aged six months to 91 percent of those aged 19-24 months. 12 percent of these older toddlers consumed soft drinks. Typical toddler snacks accounted for some of this consumption. Snacks account for about 25 percent of toddlers’ calorie intake in a day. The most common snack items included milk, water, and crackers. However, snack items such as fruit drinks, candy, chips and cookies were also consumed frequently. Thus, often low nutrient items accounted for one-quarter of toddler diets in the study.

Ages 6-11
Less than half of children ages 6-11 consumed the recommended servings for any one age group. 80 percent did not meet the recommendations for vegetables and 75 percent did not meet the serving requirement for fruit. Among this same 6-11 age group, only 29 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys met the required servings of dairy products.

Adolescents and Up
By the time a child reaches adolescence, the state of their daily nutrition is at its worst. This is an especially disturbing trend because this age marks a growth period comparable to that of the first year of life. Adolescents tend to gain approximately 50 percent of their adult body mass, 40-45 percent of their skeletal mass, and 15 to 20 percent of their height during this period. Thus, at a critical growth period, nutrition intake is at its worst and declining.

Adolescent girls were at the highest risk for not meeting daily nutrition requirements, especially with regard to folate, vitamins A, E, C, B6 and calcium. Less than half of both girls and boys in this age group did not meet minimum intakes from each food group, comparable to the intakes of younger children, including 80 percent who did not meet serving requirements for the vegetable/legume food group. According to the New York Times article “VITAL SIGNS: NUTRITION; Adolescents Aren't Eating Their Vegetables,” adolescence is often accompanied by a notable drop off in fruit and vegetable consumption.

Only 12 percent of girls and 30 percent of boys in this age group consume the recommended daily allowance of dairy products. Inadequate calcium intake during this critical growth period can lead to inadequate bone mass and diseases later in life like osteoporosis.

The main culprit in the decrease of dietary calcium for this age group is sweetened beverages like fruit drinks and sodas. The past forty-year trend has shown a two-fold increase in fruit drink consumption and a three-fold increase in soda consumption.

Currently these beverages comprise 13 percent of adolescents’ daily calorie consumption and are the single leading source for added sugars in their diets. Adolescents consume nearly double the recommended daily limit of added sugars. Basically, as the children grew up, their consumption of milk decreased as their consumption of soda and sweetened beverages increased.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The State of Our Union's Children

From past to present
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.
Perhaps the most telling statistic, and surely the one most often quoted, is that the rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last four decades. The obesity rate currently stands at 16 percent with another 15 percent of our children at risk for obesity. Type II diabetes has more than doubled among children in the last decade.

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.