Harriet Brown on the "Food Police"
I'm really really happy to see this essay in the New York Times today. Health writer Harriet Brown takes the school "food police" to task.
Earlier this year, our small Midwestern school district joined the food wars, proposing a new policy that would discourage all food in classrooms, ban nuts and sugary foods and do away with vending machines.
So much for peanut butter sandwiches, snacks for kindergartners and birthday cupcakes.
Like the policies put in place by school systems around the country, this one was driven by anxiety — about food quantity, quality and safety — and by the ever-increasing pressure for children to look a certain way and to weigh a certain amount.
Unlike the earlier "mommy wars" or the "war on drugs," which centered around simpler black-and-white divides, the 21st-century food wars are fuzzier, though the feelings run just as deep.
Some schools say they are concerned about food allergies, and it is true that for some children a stray bite of someone else's peanut butter sandwich can mean anaphylaxis and even death. But I don't think allergies are the main reason that districts across the country are racing to put new food policies in place. After all, children are allergic to strawberries, wheat and dairy, too, but there are no proposals that I'm aware of to ban any of those foods.
I fear there's something else at work — a fear borne out by a flier my fifth grader brought home saying that at the monthly pizza hot lunch, no child would be allowed to buy a second slice of pizza. The district says the new ruling is to avoid bad feelings caused by "inequities": if everyone can't have extra helpings, no one can.
This solution may seem rather Solomon-like. But if equity is the issue, I'll eat my lunch tray. I believe the schools are overreacting to the so-called obesity epidemic, and in the process are doing our children more harm than good.
They banned NUTS, one of the healthiest food types on the planet?
A look at what's happening on the state level confirms this. In Arkansas, for instance, children's report cards now include their B.M.I., or body mass index, along with their grades. The governor, Mike Huckabee recently lost more than 100 pounds and is passionate about stopping the "obesity epidemic." Maryland is considering a similar standard.
Never mind that B.M.I. is only a measure of height against weight and does not take into account muscle mass, body type or other factors. (Tom Cruise has a B.M.I. of 31, which puts him in the "obese" category.)
"You're setting kids up to feel bad about how they are," says Dr. Nancy Krebs, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Nutrition and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado.
Such efforts usually fail, making weight problems and eating disorders worse. A recent Internet discussion board among families with anorexic and bulimic children identified middle school health classes, which focus on weight, as the No. 1 trigger for their teenagers' disorders.
The food wars are being fueled by our emotionally fraught relationships with food, and by increasingly hysterical rhetoric.
We often hear, for instance, of a rising tide of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, especially in children. But the science behind such pronouncements is shaky. A study of nearly 3,000 children presented at the American Diabetes Association's 2005 conference suggested that a third of the children diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which is associated with being overweight, were later found to have Type 1 diabetes, linked to genetics.
Abigail C. Saguy, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies media framing of obesity, says it's hard to know if rates are truly rising, since no nationally representative data are available.
One study of teenagers in the Cincinnati area found that the diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes went from 7 per 100,000 teenagers per year in 1982 to 7.2 per 100,000 teenagers per year in 1994 — a difference that could easily be a result of better diagnostics.
"The term 'epidemic' refers to the rapid and episodic onset of infectious diseases and is associated with fear of sudden widespread death," Dr. Saguy says. In reality, she adds, new research shows no significant difference in death rates between "normal" and overweight Americans; mortality rates rise only for those with a B.M.I. exceeding 35 — only 8 percent of the country.
I'm really happy to see the BMI debunked in a "reputable" (y'all know how I feel about the Times, but ...) publication.
Another important thing to note is how weight and body fat are responding to hormonal changes, especially for girls, during the late elementary school, early junior high period (for most kids- some are earlier, some are later) and things like BMI and even body fat are unreliable and not particularly useful at this point in time. And children's bodies often react very differently to these changes, when it comes to weight and fat, with some growing up before out and vice versa. The nine-year-old with a D-cup has enough to deal with without having to bring home a letter explaining that she's fat. The 15-year-old who still weighs 90 lbs at 5'3" and hasn't "developed" yet doesn't need to have her eating scrutinized by classmates, teachers, and parents for signs of anorexia either.
Researchers concluded that pupils whose school lunches offered 25 percent fat (compared with 31 percent in the control group) were compensating for the reduction by eating higher-fat foods at home.
Big surprise. Anyone who's dieted for a day, a week, a month and then overeaten to compensate is familiar with the deprivation-binge-deprivation cycle — and with the weight gain that often accompanies it. One Harvard study showed that 39 percent of nurses who lost weight through dieting regained it, and in fact wound up 10 pounds heavier on average than those who didn't lose weight.
There are ways of eating that are extremely healthy that don't lead to binges. But schools, if they want to get involved in the "food wars" at all, need to model these, rather than "diets". I posted sometime in the fall about a school in Harlem that offered UNLIMITED snacks throughout the day to students - all they had to do was ask - but these snacks were fruits and veggies. (If it were up to me, I'd add some protein and fat options. Nuts, especially walnuts and almonds, would most definitely be on the list.) I doubt that the sum total of any one child's daily snacks would come even remotely close to unhealthy, but would keep the kid from that starving-at-the-end-of-the-day feeling that sent my sister and I home to eat a box of cereal each.
Which just goes to my overall point about how schools should react: expose kids to a variety of healthy options. I would have eaten at a salad bar in school, if I'd had the option back in my "free lunch" days, but instead I picked at whatever happened to land on my little orange tray. Why not do away with the standard meal and give kids vouchers?
Also, the Four Food Groups song and dance has got to go. It's misleading. REALLY teach kids about nutrition. REALLY teach kids about exercise. And part of the teaching is providing these foods and opportunities for activity. Hearing about veggies may be nice, but going to lunch and receiving a tray full of corn chips and Velveeta can undermine it.
Where I differ from Brown is that I think that it's important for kids to eat healthfully while at school for two reasons: 1. that's when it's most important for kids to be alert and 2. that's the only time we can make sure they get nutrition. We don't want anymore kids who have plenty to eat but end up with rickets because everything they're eating is nutritionally bereft. Even if we can't keep kids svelte by giving them healthy foods while they're in school, we can certainly fight the malnutrition that's increasingly common among the poor by making sure that they get two nutrient-rich meals per day.
Again, don't "ban" healthy foods. (I actually think it's fine to remove soda machines and such from schools.) Don't make the conversation about "weight" or "fatness" at all. When kids are very young, simply emphasize healthy foods all around them. Not GOOD and EVIL foods, just make sure the kid that wants a tomato instead of a brownie has that option. When kids get older, why not use biology class to actually talk hardcore about the science behind nutrition? I mean, my biology class in high school was one of the biggest wastes of time I've ever experienced, but everyone got psyched when we did genetics, because it seemed relevant even to those of us who had no interest in pursuing science any further. I think that a conversation about nutrition, which allowed for controversies (why not discuss Atkins? Veganism?) would make many kids more interested. My so-called health class (memorable primarily for the time that my teacher explained I'd be a "perfect rape victim" since I was so tiny, but my heavy classmate would never get raped because she'd scare the men away) was a travesty that could have been truly informative. I never once, NOT ONCE, heard about vitamin or mineral intake in school. Fat, calories (this was pre-Atkins period) - all the time. Nothing about what Vitamin A does and why I might care to make sure I was getting it. If that's not what health class is for, what (other than sex ed) is it meant to be?
Sometimes I think that people actually don't want to know about nutrition and don't want anyone else to either. They want to be confused so they can justify their bizarre disordered habits. Same with exercise. I don't want to hate, but A and I saw these women running the other day and it was, frankly, pathetic how ignorant they were. And this is not because they were following current wisdom, it was because they obviously wanted not to know. They were both emaciated and were running, with terrible form, one wearing a knee brace, the other wearing an ankle brace on each side, carrying 1 lb hand weights. I was embarrassed for them
and I felt sorry for them. I wanted to sit them down and explain to them how ridiculous their little routine was. Also, a couple weeks back, I was chugging a protein shake right after lifting. A woman in the locker room says, "How can you eat after exercise? That would make me sick! I don't eat for at least three hours before and after I workout." Ummmm. Greeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaat!
Now, I judge mainly because I think these people end up passing down bad habits to children under the guise of "health-consciousness". Kids who might have the opportunity to be healthy. There is no doubt a dangerous mentality that says, "Keep the nuts away from the children! Nuts have FAT in them!" and other such nonsense. I think it's time to treat our children's bodies with respect, by making sure they are well-fed, with all the nutrients they need, and the right fuel for safe and healthful physical activity.