If you have been reading my column here in the San Clemente Journal for the past few years, you might recall my aversion to Kids Meals in restaurants. As I have stated previously, it pains me greatly to see parents carefully peruse a menu in order to find a healthy option for themselves and then casually flip to the back page and almost unconsciously order the opposite for their children.
The ubiquitous offerings of pizza, cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets –all of which are calorie-dense and
nutrient-deficient– contain copious amounts of sodium, fat and added sugars. They are more often than not paired with a side of deep-fried julienned potatoes and washed down with a brightly colored plastic cup of liquid fizzy candy. The french fries are usually the only ‘vegetable’ on the plate unless the burger comes with a wilted piece of lettuce and thin slice of tomato – although the ketchup could also cozy up to the produce group, as long as it meets the requirement of 2 T. of tomato paste. Thanks to a 2011 bill passed by Congress which prohibited the USDA from increasing that amount, it unbelievably allowed pizza to qualify as a vegetable serving in school lunches. This menu is especially tragic when the restaurant doesn’t even offer these items for adults, but goes out of their way to make sure they are enticingly available for their youngest customers, whose developing brains and bodies arguably need the best nutrition and not the worst.
As the grown ups at the table, we could definitely be doing a better job modeling what optimal nutrition looks like for future generations. But we have our work cut out for us: A 2010 report from the National Cancer Institute on the status of the American Diet found that three out of four Americans don’t eat a single piece of fruit on any given day. Nine out of ten don’t reach the minimum recommended daily intake of vegetables, 96% don’t meet the minimums for greens and beans, 98% miss the target for orange vegetables, and 99% do not eat the minimum recommendation for whole grains. “In conclusion,” the researchers wrote, “nearly the entire U.S. population consumes a diet that is not on par with recommendations. These findings add another piece to the rather disturbing picture that is emerging of a nation’s diet in crisis.”
According to the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health, eating whole instead of refined grains substantially lowers total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin levels, and eating at least 2 servings of whole grains daily may help to reduce type 2 diabetes risk. Instead, due largely to click-bait headlines and a plethora of keyboard nutrition ‘experts’, our country has an irrational fear of carbs, throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to reaping the benefits of this minimally processed and nutritious food group.
Heart disease has been the country’s leading killer for the last century and we now know that almost all
children by age 10 have fatty streaks in their arteries, which are the precursors to atherosclerosis (thickening of the arteries due to plaque buildup). Because of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that every child get their cholesterol checked regularly, starting at ages 9-11. Children whose parents or grandparents have a history of heart attacks, blocked arteries, or stroke (before the age of 55 in men or 65 in women), should have their first cholesterol test at age TWO, but no later than 10.
The pertinent, if not poignant, point to this recommendation is that what we are feeding our children NOW is either fueling their disease, or fighting it. Ultra-processed foods high in aforementioned sodium, fat and added sugars will most assuredly increase their chances of developing one or more of the chronic diseases (heart disease, diabetes, cancer, chronic kidney and lung disease, stroke, and Alzheimers) which are responsible for two-thirds of all the deaths in the United States, 80% of which are preventable by better use of our forks (what we eat), feet (how we move) and fingers (tobacco, alcohol and drugs).
One could presume that the childhood obesity epidemic rests squarely on the shoulders of the adults who feed them. I would like to pivot slightly and put a large part of the blame on the food industry, who knowingly researches, develops and markets food-like products designed to be attractive to children, misleading to parents in terms of nutritional benefits, and purposefully addictive in order to keep the consumer coming back for more – all the while knowing that the products they are peddling can be harmful to one’s health. It is a calculated attack of putting profits over public health and the results are devastating: We have created the first generation in the history of the world to have shorter lifespans than their parents. According to the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, one out of three children born after the year 2000 is on track to become diabetic. These odds increase to over 1 in 2 if they are Hispanic or African American.
Bettina Elias Siegel is a mom of two and a nationally recognized writer and advocate on issues relating to
children and food policy. As a former attorney who practiced food law after graduating from Yale and Harvard Law School, she has both the background knowledge and skills to research and produce an exceptional in-depth examination into the “challenge of feeding children in a highly processed world”, which also happens to be the byline of her 2019 book, KID FOOD.
In it, Siegel walks us through the evolution (or should I say devolution) of kids meals in the United States. She describes the difficulties parents face trying to feed their children a nutritious diet when there are food saboteurs lurking around every corner – and often in plain sight. She advocates for parents who are up against what she calls “Pester Power” (the ad industry’s term for a kid’s ability to get parents to buy something they really, really, really want), “Cafeteria Copycats” (a school’s recreations of fast food items) and the blatant exploitation of cartoon characters, famous athletes, and movie stars in product packaging, commercials and in-store displays. I highly recommend it as a case study on the Who, What, When, Where and Whys of how we got to this point in history, where childhood obesity rates have tripled in the U.S. over the past 30 years and kids are dying from diseases that once afflicted only the elderly.
KID FOOD also provides tons of helpful resources and reassurances that it’s not just the parent’s fault,
although we do need to take a close look in the mirror when it comes to owning up to what we can –and
should– do better. I will be the first person to admit being a prime offender when my children were young. Preventing the mistakes I made when it came to my own nutrition, as well as theirs, is what motivated me to start The Noble Path Foundation. I hope an open and honest discussion of how we can work together as parents, educators, and advocates to shape future food policy will ensure that what young people are putting on the ends of their forks will help them flourish, not flounder. Our children need us to invest in their health, for in the end it truly is the only wealth that matters. We can do better, together.
Cindi is President and Founder of The Noble Path Foundation, a 501(c)(3) located in San Clemente, CA, dedicated to helping the youth of our communities reach their highest potential via healthy nutrition and lifestyle choices, safe and fun social activities, and motivational mentoring. For sources and links to the statistics mentioned in this article, please visit our website and search for the article under our blog at www.thenoblepathfoundation.org.
The Pediatric Aspects of Atherosclerosis: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/5346899/
The Role of Nutrition in Brain Development: The Golden Opportunity of the “First 1000 Days”:
Cholesterol Levels in Children and Adolescents: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Cholesterol-Levels-in-Children-and-Adolescents.aspx
Whole Grains: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/whole-grains/
Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World, Bettina Elias Siegal, Bettina Elias (2019). Oxford University Press 2020, New York, NY
Hispanic or Latino People and Type 2 Diabetes: https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/hispanic-diabetes.html
Standard American Diet: https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/standard-american-diet/
Prevalence of risk for type 2 diabetes in school children: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16635203/
One in Three US Children Born in 2000 Will Develop Diabetes: https://www.worldhealth.net/news/one_in_three_us_children_born_in_2000_wi/
Congress Blocks New Rules on School Lunches: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/16/us/politics/congress-blocks-new-rules-on-school-lunches.html
Bill would label pizza a vegetable in school lunches: