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Childhood Obesity --
Would you like some hypocrisy with that?
By Staci Schoff Carsten

page two

Something even more troubling is that a South Beach experiment is occurring in some elementary schools. The creator of South Beach says, "Left to our own devices, we go for sweet stuff and fats. In early societies, these basic, primitive tastes helped us survive by leading us to nutritionally dense food like fruit and meat."

Imagine the horror of growing children eating nutrient dense foods like fruit and meat. Does a kid really get obese from eating too many steaks and apples? And why, does he suppose, weren't all of the Chinese people obese from eating mostly white rice (a "baaaaaad carb")? And to speak the unspeakable, this guy doesn't have enough money already from selling his snake oil to adults? Now he has to target our kids too?

Maybe a little less "South Beach" and a little more common sense is in order here. One of the problems is that French fries have become a God-given right in our schools. And it's not so much that, as it is the choice to eat nothing but a huge container of French fries. Are kids really going to get obese from eating a 350 calorie lunch every day because it has ketchup and French fries included? When kids are served a lunch with reasonable portions and milk to drink, the fat, carbohydrate and sugar content doesn't matter all that much (so long as all essential nutrients are represented). But one would practically be a fascist to suggest that we simply do away with the "food court" mentality at middle and high schools.

Interestingly, the children of the much demonized "clean-your-plate" generation didn't have a very high incidence of obesity. The reason why? They didn't have very big plates. In the following table the government gives a guideline that represents a time of scarcity and bare bones nutrition. Even using the fattiest three-ounce serving of meat I can think of, this whole list only comes to about 1,160 calories for adults and 1,450 for kids (kids had to combine growing with working back then). If the government went back to this bare-minimum-to-get-adequate-nutrition approach, adults could add in a candy bar, a soda and even a bag of chips every day and still not eat enough to become obese. Get the kids off the couch once in a while and they could do the same.

The Weston Price Foundation has been lobbying the government to change its recommendations back to pretty much exactly this for a while now. On a scale of one to ten, one being the most sane and ten being the most nutty, these people are about a fifteen, but they make several excellent points about what should be common sense in the world of nutrition. Most notably, they point out that foods that exist in nature and have been recognized as good for human consumption the world over for thousands of years did not suddenly turn "bad" in the 1980‘s, political agendas notwithstanding.

There's a lot of money spent every year trying to figure out why American kids are so much fatter than other kids. It would be amusing if it wasn't so… dumb. How many studies should we need to figure out that sitting at a desk listening to a teacher followed by sitting around watching TV during most of one's waking hours just doesn't require very many calories? PT Barnum's famous quote, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," is particularly apt in light of how much we need to be told how to not feed our kids so much.

At the same time, as a mother I understand what a horrible dilemma this might put parents in. For example, I'm not too bothered by hearing my kids complain if I say they can't have another candy bar (annoyed probably, but not really "bothered"), but I can't really imagine telling a kid who says he's still hungry that he can't have another piece of chicken or another bowl of spaghetti. It's not hard to figure out why parents in this situation are looking for a better answer and fall prey to so much "magic answer" advice.

Genetics is rarely given much of a mention in all this advice, yet it plays a really important role. It may not really be a genetic predisposition to obesity as much as the result of certain populations evolving in an area of scarcity and therefore having adapted to living on few calories. According to Dr. Paul Saltman of the University of California, San Diego,

The Pima Indians evolved to meet the needs of living in the desert. In their case genetic selection was for those with the most effective metabolism and ability to conserve scarce resources. Make available a 7-11 and a six pack of beer to people with this genetic background and you've got people who are very obese and very sick from heart disease and diabetes.

But it's not very romantic to say that most of us (including many of our children) just eat too much. And it certainly doesn't sell any books or inspiring audio tapes. What we need to learn as a nation is how to help our children stay healthy and survive in a time of abundance when evolution has programmed their bodies to withstand scarcity. The answer is not to over burden them with obsessing over every food ingredient, and I'm not going to volunteer to hold my breath until there's less junk food available to American kids. So I think the best we can do at this point is to support programs that increase the availability of good quality food (especially that which is quick and easy to prepare) to low-income families, and to incorporate more natural activity into kids' school days. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, we need to teach all of our kids to, at least, put the Cheetos back in the cupboard when their bellies are full.

mmo : october 2005

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Staci Schoff is an at-home mother of two boys. You can read more of her work on her website, www.politicallyincorrectmom.com, and blog. She can be contacted at sls27@aol.com.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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