Junkfood Science: Of concern to parents: what are children really being told in school?

April 27, 2007

Of concern to parents: what are children really being told in school?

As a parent, you send your child off to school, hoping he/she will be safe. Like most parents, you care that your child is protected from threats, needless scares and things that could endanger his/her health and future. Yet, few parents realize that the things being taught in schools in the name of wellness are doing just that.

How would you feel if a doctor and famous person came to your child’s elementary school and told the students that they were going to die before their parents, get terrible diseases and might even become retarded, all because they were getting fat from eating bad sugar and fatty foods and not exercising? Incredibly, this is the message young pupils at John B. Russwurm Elementary School in Harlem heard from speeches made to them two years ago. Yet, there were no news reports of incensed parents whisking their small children out of the auditorium, calling or writing the school board in protest, or of a single adult or teacher speaking out and putting a stop to the program.


Perhaps because the hysteria over a “childhood obesity epidemic” has reached the point where even many adults are willing to do anything to advance a political and marketing agenda — even medical and education professionals who have a responsibility to know the fallacies in the science and that children and teens are too young to comprehend and do anything with such frightening information other than react emotionally and often in self-destructive ways.

Yet, the situation is only getting worse. Children cannot escape these over-the-top messages which now confront them in virtually every classroom, on their computers, in the cafeteria, and are now even being pumped into their homeroom on Channel One.

Unbeknownst to many parents, a key source of health and nutrition information in schools is the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, whose “Healthy Schools Program” was funded in part by $8 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We’ve looked at some of the issues surrounding this Alliance, a joint project of the William J. Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association, but let’s take a closer look at what they are actually telling our children.

Former President Bill Clinton and the president and CEO of the RWJF, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A. set the tone when they spoke to the young Harlam students at the well-publicized launch of the Alliance’s “Healthy Schools Program.” Mr. Clinton told the children they could be the “first generation in American history to live shorter lives than their parents because so many are eating too much of the wrong things and not exercising enough.” [While this has been repeated so often many believe it to be true, there is absolutely no evidence or research to support it. It began two years ago as a speculation opinioned in a journal and even though its author has since retracted its accuracy, it’s become a runaway urban legend.]

“We are all here today to take a stand against childhood obesity and create a healthy new generation of young Americans,” Mr. Clinton told the children.

He went on to tell them they were eating too much sugar and fatty foods (while a popular belief, as we've learned, children are actually eating well within the Dietary Guidelines), vices which caused his own heart attack, and that “children who don’t exercise enough and whose diet lacks proper nutrients can encounter serious problems, including stunted growth, cognitive impairment and as we all know obesity, which creates an obliterated risk of heart disease, diabetes, and a range of other illnesses.”

Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey, then came to the podium and said:

You know, you kids—and the millions of kids like you all across the country—are why we’re all here today. Your health and your future are important to us, to the country and to the world.

Could these kids possibly be the first generation of Americans to live sicker and die younger than the previous one? Or will they be a healthier generation?...“Energy in and energy burned” is the equation that defines the obesity epidemic...

As already noted, the Alliance partnered with Nickelodeon to create a Let’s Just Play Go Healthy Challenge to “combat the spread of childhood obesity” and Nickelodeon has committed $28 million and 10% of its air time to promote the Alliance’s campaign on healthy eating and active lifestyles. It includes “Go Healthy Challenge” television programming for teens and a website for children.

But what many parents may not realize is that the Alliance recently announced a partnership with Channel One, the content provider “reaching more than 7 million students in nearly 11,000 middle schools and high schools across the country.” This new union will create health programming and accompanying material to “drive home the importance of increased physical activity and balanced nutrition in and outside of school.”

For parents who have been trying to help their children and teens develop healthy, balanced relationships with food and normal eating habits, and to help them feel comfortable with their natural, individual bodies; for parents trying to help their children and teen avoid our society’s obsessive focus on weight and fears about bad food; and for parents concerned about the growing prevalence of dysfunctional eating and food fears, they will be dismayed to discover the messages on Channel One and the Alliance websites, being pumped into school classrooms, and distributed in classroom handouts through the Alliance and Channel One.

These materials are rife with misinformation and unsound information about food and health. They exemplify the ill-informed health messages that Dr. Jennifer O’Dea, M.P.H, Ph.D., an international child nutrition and eating expert at the University of Sydney in Australia, has repeatedly warned (discussed here, here and here) are potentially harmful to children.

Let’s take a few examples:

Channel One has a health guide website for young teens, called “One Step to a Better Me.” When children log on, the first thing they encounter is “a personalized health evaluation:” a BMI chart and calorie counter! The instant message is that health is all about weight and calories. The accompanying resources include a food and exercise journal where children daily record what they eat and do; dieting advice, and resources that include such topics as the importance of calories, water and reading labels to understand “good” and “bad” food items.

Every lesson plan includes a “Character Counts” section and tells children what to say to someone who is not “drinking not enough, or the wrong, fluids;” or not eating right or exercising; and how to tell someone they need to “take better notice of nutrition.” In other words, a healthy lifestyle is a moral, character issue.

Children are encouraged to sign a healthy family pact with their parents, in which they promise to learn the differences between “healthy and unhealthy foods;” discourage each other from eating foods high in fat, salt and sugar; only make or buy “healthy” lunches; and to drink 8 glasses of water a day. This alone will alert informed parents that their children are being taught little more than popular myths and urban legends. [We’ll look at the water urban legend, for example, in an upcoming post.]

The interactive Healthy Generation website for children tells them to “take responsibility and control” of their body because it’s their future. A “look at the future” page depicts an animated fat child sitting in a lounge chair, surrounded by stereotypical junk food and media with a scrolling educational message telling them how many teen girls are overweight; how many kids aren’t getting enough exercise; and the problems of too little PE, too many computer games, and too many fast food restaurants.

Among the printable posters for children is one entitled “Food Label Illiteracy — It’s just not natural,” which reinforces lesson plans telling them to read labels and that any long word or word they can’t pronounce is an unhealthy ingredient (chemicals like citric acid, glutamate, sodium, pectin, etc. are to be feared). Packaged and processed foods are not real food, they’re told, and are not things they should put into their bodies.

Tips for Go Health Challengers include fact sheets and charts to track their progress. It also includes an activist packet for children with ready petitions they can take to school officials that say it is “their right to have access to healthy food in school [and that] students should have access to foods that are good for their health.” The clear message is that the food offered in the school cafeteria isn't good for them.

The health “news” being broadcast through Channel One is predominated by foreboding fears over obesity. Even its segment on body image begins by telling children that obesity is the country’s biggest health problem and then tells them how to get in shape in order to develop a “healthy body image,” offering diet and exercise resources! [The very last things already self-conscious, and eating disorder-vulnerable young people need to hear.] Only the merest mention is made of eating disorders. The information on health consequences of obesity presented by the Alliance is taken primarily from the Surgeon General’s recent call to action to combat childhood obesity, a political agenda rather than careful evidence-based science. Information from the Alliance embellishes obesity fears with untenable speculative claims about heart disease; that childhood obesity is raising healthcare costs; that childhood obesity leads to drinking problems and disability and makes it harder to bathe and dress; that one-in-four obese children have constipation; and that the average boy drinks more than 24 ounces of soda a day, indicative of fat children’s poor eating habits.

The "essential concepts about nutrition and diet" used in the school lesson plans are described in Benchmarks for Health. They begin by teaching the concept of good and bad food at pre-kindergarten. Grades 3-5 are to be taught “healthy eating practices,” understand the nutritional value of different foods, and know “how food preparation methods and food-handling practices affect the safety and nutrient quality of foods.” By grade 6, they are to understand how eating properly will reduce health risks such as cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis; and know how to manage their weight, including diet. By high school grades, children are taught to fear food additives and are taught media literacy, which tells them about bad food company advertising, but not literacy concerning healthy food messaging. Obviously, few adults comprehend the complex science, chemistry and medical issues and politics surrounding these topics, let alone expect it of children.

For parents wanting to know more specifically what teachers are telling their children, they will be interested in the Alliance’s Healthier Generation Teacher Guides provided through Channel One. Among the Tip Sheets “designed to help [teachers and their] students take action in the battle against obesity” are:

· Tip Sheet 2: Reading Food Labels 101 which tells them to minimize “bad fats that clog arteries,” to keep sugar low because “sugar means more calories,” and that “the less cholesterol and sodium you eat, the better.”

· Tip Sheet 7: Body Mass Index (BMI) equates health with a proper body weight; if children are “overweight” parents should talk to their doctor and help their children improve their health by eating a “calorie-appropriate” diet and be more active; and that overweight children will develop heart disease and other diseases.

· Tip Sheet 8: Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats tells children that there are good and bad carbs and good and bad fats; that simple sugars are bad because they are high in calories, and that people should eat only “healthy” sugars that are natural.

· Tip Sheet 13: The Skinny on Fats says that the problem is “most kids, teens, and adults eat too much saturated and trans fats instead of heart-healthy unsaturated fats.” It says it’s critical to educate children on the difference between good and fat fats and that the American Heart Association recommends that less than 7% of calories should come from saturated fat and less than 1% calories come from trans fat per day. [This even contrasts with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, which recommends adults keep saturated fats below 10% of total calorie intakes for selected calorie levels and notes that lower intakes (such as less than 7% saturated fats) are only “recommended as part of a therapeutic diet for adults with elevated LDL blood cholesterol. People with an elevated LDL blood cholesterol level should be under the care of a healthcare provider.”] Among the Tip sheet’s recommendations are that children eat fat-free and low-fat milk and foods, remove the skin from chicken before eating, eat ground beef that’s been rinsed in hot water after cooking to remove the excess fat, avoid butter or margarines, skip the cheese, and be careful about fish because of mercury!

· Tip Sheet 15: Too Much Salt? says salt is a leading cause of high blood pressure, cancer and osteoporosis and advises that children limit their salt intake; younger children most of all should keep sodium under 1500 mg/day. [This contrasts to even the 2005 Dietary Guidelines which makes no mention of restricting sodium for children and recommends only specific population groups, such as older adults with hypertension, consume no more than 1500 mg daily.] But the Alliance tells children to cut down on salt, choose low-salt foods and condiments, and even request restaurants to prepare their food without salt and to request all sauces on the side and then eat in moderation.

You get the idea. Not only are these dietary lessons inappropriate for growing children and more akin to medical prescriptions for adult heart disease patients and the obsessive behaviors found among weight loss dieters, they have nothing to do with childhood obesity, health or sound nutrition. They dichotomize foods into good and bad, and promote ungrounded fears about perfectly safe and wholesome foods, concerns about their body sizes, and worries about diseases and death that should be the last thing children need worry about.

Parents are getting wise to these harmful curriculums and venting their outrage on countless online forums. Some are taking action to protect their children. One parent recently wrote how she pulled her sixth-grader out of her required “wellness” class, at least for the nutrition and “obesity” parts of the class. Why? She said:

Because isn't it a great idea to take a bunch of impressionable 6th-graders and brainwash them into thinking that the only healthy food out there is a carrot stick or salad (hold the dressing!)? Given the fact that most eating disorders start between 11 and 17, this seems like a bad idea to me, especially the way such things are taught.

As more parents begin to realize how pervasive the harmful messages being given their children in schools, we can expect to see more organized efforts to protect them. An impassioned essay was recently written by one blogger who objected to youngsters being “scared to death” in school. While he was writing on a different issue and the sentiments may seem dramatic at first, the concerns are surprisingly similar and provide us with some soul-searching food for thought. He wrote:

These kids are way too young to be introduced to such complex subjects... Young minds like this cannot cope with the higher level abstractions required to make any kind of rational judgement.... [They] can only respond to such issues emotionally.

What kind of words can I use to describe the evil of scaring kids to death with a virtual non-problem? Unspeakable? Unthinkable? Even if GW were a problem, it would be the responsibility of adults to address it, not kids.

In the Jonestown mass suicide a mother was taped pouring poison down her child's throat. That mother was the naked essence of evil, the desire to destroy life. But destroying the minds of kids to form concepts and integrate them in an hierarchy, to know instead of believe, is to leave the kid's body alive while destroying the body's means of survival.

Yesterday, you no doubt heard that Mr. Clinton’s Alliance has partnered with a cookbook author and daytime television cook show host, Rachael Ray. She has launched her own “Yum-o! Organization,” to “educate and empower families across America to make healthier food choices by providing them with the tools and information they need to transform their eating habits.” On her show yesterday, she lamented that children were eating such “unhealthy” breakfasts as pancakes with syrup or sausage and eggs in a biscuit, and that she is eager to work with the Alliance to teach families to make better food choices. During the show, Mr. Clinton voiced the oft-repeated myths about how this generation will be the first to not outlive their parents, that 13 million children are overweight and one in three will get type 2 diabetes. Ray’s organization also includes television segments, a website and scholarships.

In turn, the Alliance will reward participating schools with Ray’s own branded cookware and personal appearances by the star.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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