Junkfood Science: This is scholastic achievement?

October 11, 2007

This is scholastic achievement?

From the “What are they teaching our children?” file comes another school-based childhood obesity initiative with no sound basis in science. Worse, it teaches children to fear healthful foods they need and teaches prejudices against their heavier classmates.

We’ve already seen the lesson plans and messages being taught as part of the Alliance for a Healthy Generation. Its partnership with Nickelodeon offers an online video game to reinforce its messages, and partners with Channel One to pipe the messages into the classrooms of more than 7 million children in 11,000 middle school and high schools across the country. Now, Kaiser Permanente, which has partnered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in developing childhood obesity programs, has created an anti-obesity game for elementary children that is being distributed, along with teacher lesson plans and parent guides, through Scholastic Inc. But that’s not all…

Video game teaches kids about diet - then turns off

With child obesity rates rising, the U.S.'s biggest health maintenance organization on Tuesday launched an online video game to teach kids what to eat — and then shut down after 20 minutes. Kaiser Permanente said "The Incredible Adventures of the Amazing Food Detective" was designed to teach 9- and 10-year-olds about healthy eating and exercise.

But rather than keep children in front of the computer for hours, the title aims to get kids moving. It has a function that locks players out after 20 minutes — and another that won't let them back in until for another 60 minutes….The game includes printable scavenger hunts that teach kids to make sense of food labels, experiments that show kids how to measure sugar in drinks, healthy recipes, muscle-building exercises and family activities to promote better eating.

Many parents and grandparents remember Scholastic publications as educational, inspiring and fun ways for kids to learn about the world. This is not the Scholastic they remember.

The Food Detective game invites kids to click on the “AFD Case Files” of various “Suspects:” children who are supposedly behaving badly. The fat little 10-year old girl is Emily. The game tells kids that Emily is fat because “she eats too much and needs to learn portion control.” The food detective sets up a security cam in her house “to catch the culprit in the act” and she is shown gobbling nonstop a table of fattening foods and a chart shows her eating a whopping 4,550 [kilo]calories.

We could stop right there, of course, as the evidence has shown time and again that fat children eat no differently than thin children to explain the natural differences in their sizes. This game does nothing but teach children to condemn fat children for gluttony, while instilling the harmful false message in fat children that they must be eating “too much.” But the calories being ascribed to the 10 year old fat girl are beyond absurd and illustrate just how uncredible these lessons are. According to NHANES, 6-11 year old girls eat an average of 1,889 kilocalories a day (plus or minus 43 kcal) and the “educational message” in this game bears no resemblance to the facts.

Other children’s “Case Files” promote equally unsound and prejudicial messages. A heavy little boy named Michael is called a “sofa loafer” and his fatness is blamed on spending too much time on the computer and playing video games and eating bad foods. Another popular myth of fat children. And a little boy, Cole, is supposedly a weakling because he eats junk food. You get the idea.

In an interactive section where children are to select a “healthy” snack, they are not allowed to select anything with fat, sugar or salt in it— only water, fresh fruits and vegetables, and low-fat plain milk are allowed. The teachers' lesson plans push healthy eating and exercise, and contrasts them with “bad” foods and behaviors that make kids fat and unhealthy. Lessons include writing assignments. The Healthy Habit Goals children are instructed to meet each day and report on a monthly score card are: 1). Eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables; 2). Get more than 1 hour of exercise; and 3). Limit screen time to 1-2 hours. This is all to address a nonexistent childhood obesity crisis.

Parents are told to have a family meeting to discuss the new “Health Goals” and to write down the healthy behaviors and goals that they will reach as a family, similar to the family contracts proposed under the Alliance programs. A calendar is to be hung on the family’s refrigerator to track their habits each day. Parents are instructed that eating well means fruits and vegetables and low-fat milk. Sweetened drinks and high-fat, high-calorie snacks are to be “out of your home.” Video games are to be “limited to those that promote physical activity” and toys should all encourage activity. More than an hour of “hard play” is to be done every day and they should try pedometers.

A 24-page supplement for parents on obesity and encouraging “political activism” is included. It’s a summary of popularized fears and unsupported claims about the “staggering economic impact” and “heavy health burden” of the childhood obesity epidemic, “bad” sugars as being the leading cause of childhood obesity, the role of unhealthy fats in disease; and quotes with unsupported claims, such as “type 2 diabetes is all about behavior” and that “childhood obesity is akin to the tobacco epidemic [as] the physiology is the same.” That last one might sound puzzling until you remember the movement afoot to promote obesity as a mental disorder related to uncontrollable “overeating.” In fact, one of the Scholastic lesson plans for teens already in distribution [from the National Institutes of Health at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department] equates obese people to drug addicts and alcoholics.

This deserves its own post as the mythology is so over-the-top. But in a nutshell, the thinking goes that foods (namely sugars and fats) are addictive. As the July 2001 issue of Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter explained, this belief is poppycock. With an addiction, the body requires increasingly more of the addictive substance and experiences withdrawal when cravings are not satisfied. Hunger and a desire for flavorful foods is not an addiction. We don’t require ever-larger portions to meet our needs nor do we experience true physical withdrawal if we abstain. Also, physiologically, our bodies can’t distinguish the sugar in fruit or carrots from the sugar in cookies, for instance, yet few of us would believe we are addicted to or have uncontrollable cravings for carrots or apples.

Our brains have normal biological pathways that function to give us pleasure to reward us for things that are essential for our survival, such as eating, drinking and reproduction. Drugs partially take over this circuitry to create a false reward that can lead to addiction, but the fact that foods activate the same pathways as addictive drugs does not mean that food is addictive, according to Dr. Paul Ernsberger, Ph.D., at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. But Scholastic teaches the addiction and obesity claim as if it’s proven science, telling students that addicts “tend to have damage to a part of the brain responsible for judgment and impulse control.” The forced-choice test at the end of the lesson plan leaves students with no true choices at all, whether it’s asking them about obesity statistics, what they should do if they’re fat, or the health problems caused by obesity.

The more insights we get into the incessant anti-obesity and “healthy” eating and exercise messages bombarding our children in school, the more alarmed growing numbers of parents and healthcare professionals are becoming. Perhaps, it’s also not surprising that increasing numbers of parents are choosing to home school their kids.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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