Junkfood Science: Are kids really eating that badly?

February 04, 2007

Are kids really eating that badly?

Generations of parents have wished their kids ate better but stories of the horrible diets of today’s children are gross exaggerations.

Parents are just as loving of their children today as in past generations. And despite the insinuations that today’s parents are incapable of knowing how to feed their children well and need the interventions of health authorities, parents are actually more highly educated than ever. Since 1940, when the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking educational attainment among Americans, high school graduates have increased among adults from 24.% to 83.9% in 2004 and college graduates from 4.6% to 27%.

But both parents and children are being led to believe that everything they eat is bad and that many of the foods growing children actually need are now “unhealthy.” Such scares sell a lot of “healthy eating” and anti-childhood obesity programs but the evidence they’re based upon is thin.

Fran Yeoman of Timesonline has written another piece well worth reading:

'Everyone our age thinks they eat badly'

...[T]he Government’s constant mantra of obesity epidemics, nutritious school meals and five-a-day is weighing heavily on some very slight shoulders. “When I first started to lose weight, it was because I thought I ate unhealthily,” says 17-year-old Helen. “Everyone our age thinks that they are eating unhealthily because they have chocolate. You’re told no fat, no sugar...“More and more people cut foods out — they think you can’t eat things that are perfectly normal to have.”

Dee Dawson, the medical director of Rhodes Farm, argues that the current healthy eating drive needs to be steered away from children. “A lot of the propaganda leads you to believe that if you keep cutting down you will keep getting healthier,” she says. “I never hear about a bottom line, below which cutting down is a bad thing.”

She also worries that low-fat diets have become the ideal, rather than balanced eating, plus exercise. “Children need fat. If they run around and exercise, as they should, they burn a lot of calories.

“It’s almost impossible these days for a child to get through school without her feeling like she should be dieting or eating something special. They have mums who jog and worry about carbs, Jamie Oliver telling them not to do things, notes home saying they shouldn’t bring certain things in packed lunches, vending machines being taken out of schools. A child should not even be thinking about their diet, their weight.”...

All of the media panic about the state of our children’s diet simply isn’t a balanced perspective. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that since 1970, Americans have been eating "better." We’ve increased our consumption of dark leafy greens by 378 percent, broccoli by 365 percent, fresh vegetables by 35 percent, fresh fruit by 30 percent, fish by 22 percent, beans and legumes by 22 percent and skim milk by 150 percent. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported that grains, legumes and low-fat milk intakes have increased among adults since 1965, along with decreases in calories and percentages of dietary fat.

And their report published in Archives of Disease in Childhood found that since 1965, teens are eating significantly less total fat (39% to 32%) and saturated fat (15% to 12%) and fewer calories. “Overall, there was a decline of 17% in energy [calorie intake] over this 30 year time period,” they said. Even preschoolers show favorable eating changes since the 1970s, according to Penn State researchers — more servings of fruits, vegetables, dairy products, juice, iron-rich foods, and fewer calories and fat.

Dietary fat and “junk food” continue to be the most dreaded foodstuffs, out of concerns such “bad” foods make kids fat. However, the extremity of today’s concerns aren’t justified. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 1989-91 and 1994-95 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes also showed that dietary fat intake, both total fat and fat as a percentage of calories, have dropped since 1989, with teens showing the largest drops. Teen girls have reduced intakes from 34 to 32% of calories and teen boys from 35 to 33%.

In fact, the latest NHANES dietary surveys shows the majority of children’s fat intakes are well within the 2005 Dietary Guidelines which suggests children ages 2-3 eat 30-35% fat and from ages 4-18 eat 25-35% fat. The bottom line, children are not pigging out on junk food to an unprecedented degree, as the media and special interests portray.

What child has ever eaten as well as their parents might have liked? But it’s also a normal part of childhood to eat a lot of high-calorie, low-nutrient dense foods and consumption has always been “high” among all kids, unrelated to their weights. Researchers from Harvard and Children’s Hospital, for example, followed nearly 15,000 American children for three years and found no link between low-nutrient snack foods or sugary drinks and changes in body weights. And researchers looking at the diets of more than 130,000 kids in 34 countries reported that fat kids eat the least sweets, and that kids’ body weights had nothing to do with how many fruits, vegetables or soft drinks they consumed.

But parents also need not fear their children’s eating habits are for life. There is no evidence for that. Kids grow up and, as Penn State research has also shown, our diets naturally get healthier and our taste buds appreciate more varied diets as we become adults.

Contrary to popular beliefs and anecdotal evidence, NPD Group, the nation’s leading market research firm, recently reported that fresh fruit is actually the most popular snack among kids today. In second place among children ages 2 to 7 was yogurt.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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