Junkfood Science: "Eat Smart" teaches children

July 11, 2008

"Eat Smart" teaches children

Not health. Not nutrition. The largest government-funded program teaching our children how to eat “healthy” is teaching them to be afraid — of their foods, their bodies and for their health. And to diet.

We often hear the idea dismissed that any potential harm could come from childhood obesity initiatives. After all, what could be wrong with teaching children healthy eating and to be active... for their health? But how many people have researched the ideologies and marketing interests of those seeking government “Healthy Eating and Physical Activity” program grants, investigated what they’re actually telling children, and, most importantly, what our children are learning?

We saw evidence of the lessons children are actually taking away from healthy eating classes in an article this week from San Luis Obispo County. Not only did it illustrate the unsound messages children are being given, but how they process information that’s beyond their readiness to understand it. It was summed up in a single sentence from an 8 year old boy who came home and told his mother: “Eating bad can destroy your life.”

Eat Smart Play Hard

Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, Eat Smart Play Hard is the nationwide obesity-prevention program targeting low-income, minority children, beginning from preschool age. The FNS administers this program and the nutrition assistance programs across the country from its home office in Alexandria, VA, and its budget is the largest at the USDA. At first glance, the Eat Smart Play Hard program description may sound relatively benign. But, in action, kids can’t escape the focus on weight:

The Campaign encourages and teaches children, parents, and caregivers to eat healthy and be physically active everyday. Eat Smart. Play Hard.™ offers resources and tools to convey and reinforce healthy eating and lifestyle behaviors that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the MyPyramid Food Guidance System.

The Campaign spokescharacter, Power Panther, and his nephew Slurp are used to communicate the behavior messages. The Eat Smart. Play Hard.™ materials support the nutrition and physical activity component of School Wellness, add a new twist to WIC education and counseling, and reach Food Stamps, Commodity Supplemental Food Programs, Food Distribution on Indian Reservations participants as well as child, after school, and summer programs.

The general lesson plans and materials for the Eat Smart Play Hard childhood obesity prevention programs are provided by the USDA, but each local program puts its own spin on the program.

The San Luis Obispo program targets low-income Hispanic children in first and second grades, living in the central coast region of California. It pairs children with an adult buddy and the curricula was compiled from materials from the USDA, Iowa Nutrition Network and Iowa Department of Public Health Pick a Better Snack. Its program is focused on meeting three objectives: eat more fruits and vegetables; limit sugar and drink more water; and teach ways to be more active.

Children are taught that healthy snacks and foods mean primarily fruits and vegetables and to be horrified by the fat, sugar and calories in other foods. For example, according to the San Luis Obispo course outline, kids are asked to rank snack foods by matching them with their fat content, by placing corresponding tubes of raw fat in front of the correct food. Ranking food choices by how many tablespoons sugar they contain, give a similar message that they should be scared by sugar, without children having any sense of perspective of what’s natural and normal to eat. The message they take away is that the fat and sugar in foods they love is unhealthy and the less they eat, the better. In the San Luis Obispo curricula, three entire weeks are devoted to identifying and limiting sugar and two weeks to fats in foods, and one week on balancing their pyramid. Instructors are also told to “encourage water consumption throughout the program.”

The unsound good-bad food messages — shown to put young people at risk and to lead to dysfunctional relationships with food — are unmistakable. Over the six weeks of Eat Smart Play Hard programs, kids aren’t helped to explore all sorts of different foods their growing bodies need and that kids can enjoy and find fun to eat. Nor are they helped to eat normally and to trust that grown-ups are taking care of them and feeding them safe and good foods. They’re given adult worries and complex nutritional concepts beyond their cognitive abilities to know what to do with them, not to mention, a fair amount of questionable diet beliefs.

The MyPyramid for Kids, the food guide pyramid from the USDA, has a frenzied intensity on sports and exercises and emphasis on burning calories. The two lessons given big stars on the kids’ food pyramid are: “Find your balance between food and fun” and “Fats and sugars — know your limits.”

The other half of the calorie equation comes through the Eat Smart Play Hard program’s mascot, Power Panther. Kids are reminded each week that it’s important to play hard to balance the foods they eat, and to limit sedentary activities. It’s as one mother described these activity pyramids: “it’s like an anorectic’s way of seeing the world — only in terms of what burns the most calories.”

To drive home that not eating right and being active can supposedly hurt them and make them feel and look badly, comics from the USDA have Power Panther telling kids he was weak and slow and the last to be picked by other kids to play... until he started choosing healthy foods and playing hard. He then had a transformation and had lots of energy, started getting better grades in school, and all his friends wanted to play with him. He looked better, too, and became a different person everybody noticed, says the comics.


When the government’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the Food Guide Pyramid created from them, were released in 2005, it was the first time in history that nutrition was no longer the priority. The new priority was weight management. The new Dietary Guidelines put the entire nation on a diet and its key message was to “eat less and exercise more to lose weight.” While the impact on adults was recognized, no one has stopped to look at how the food guide pyramid created for children, MyPyramid, translated these guidelines for children and what the Eat Smart Play Hard education program for the kid’s MyPyramid has been teaching.

It’s teaching them to diet.

MyPyramid for kids is about weight control and restrictive eating, a point made clear in how the pyramid is to be used to teach kids to “balance their food with fun.” Step One is “estimate your daily calorie needs” to know the right number of calories needed to be a “healthy weight.” It cautions them to “be sure you don’t lose weight quickly.” Of course, the messed up message being given kids is that they are eating “healthy” when, of course, they are actually dieting.

Did you know that the MyPyramid for Kids also has the children learn to keep a food diary? Some of the Eat Smart Play Hard programs use the USDA’s handout, focused on fruits and vegetables. Others, like in New Mexico, have their own food journal forms they give to the kids to fill in.

Missouri's Eat Smart Play Hard program focuses on four themes: eating healthy breakfasts; making wise snack choices; balancing food choices with physical activity; and be active every day. “[H]ealthful eating habits is an important life skill that can aid in preventing health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, later in life,” the campaign literature claims.

The program literature from San Luis Obispo repeats similar popular beliefs: “Overweight and obesity can lead to a number of illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease... the two common contributors to overweight and obesity are poor diet [and] not enough physical activity.” To kids, public health messages about horrible diseases they don’t understand are scary, especially for the naturally-fat kids. They're left to worry about adult diseases that little kids shouldn’t have to spend their childhoods worrying about. Is this what you would want someone to tell your first grader?

The Eat Smart Play Hard curriculum in New Mexico targets third graders with its key themes: balancing food and play; healthy snacks; making family time active time; power breakfasts; and the power of being fit. "Know how many hours of physical activity and the amount of water needed per day," the lesson plan tells them. The last class lesson is prepared and presented by supervised middle school or high school student aids. It also pushes the “healthy benefits of water,” as do the other state program lesson plans, with the nutrition educators instructing children:

Healthy Benefits of Water – (10 min)

While students are eating their trail mix, introduce this section by discussing:

Water is essential for life.

We need 6 to 8 cups of fluid each day, in addition to the foods we eat.

• On hot summer days, it is especially important that we get enough water because dehydration can be dangerous for our bodies.

Thirst is not always a good indicator of how much water we need.

Plain cool or cold water is the best for replacing body water.

• We need water throughout the day, and before, during and after physical activities, especially activities in the sun.

• When you are thirsty, the best drink is water.

Of course, needlessly pushing water isn’t about their health or teaching them a healthful eating habit, as the water myths reveal. It's a dieting behavior and an attempt to fill them up so they’ll eat less and consume fewer calories. And another water myth.

New York state received its Eat Well Play Hard program grant last year. Its program targets children from the age of two. It also says its program was developed “to help prevent childhood obesity and reduce long-term risks for chronic disease through promotion of targeted dietary practices and increased physical activity beginning at age two.” In addition to encouraging more fruits and vegetables and physical activity, the Capital District’s Eat Well Play Hard core strategy promotes fat-free and low-fat dairy products beginning at age two. They claim that lowfat dairy foods can help “prevent overweight and chronic diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes.”

They’ve even raised billboards promoting a public health message for parents to “skip the fat.” The campaign says that at age two switch kids to 1% or non-fat milk. One reader, photographer Jessica M. Shea, was so shocked, she drove back around and took this picture to share with you all. [Click on image to view larger.] The belief that toddlers and children should be on low-fat diets is controversial among medical professionals and shorter on clinical evidence than most parents realize.

Even these broad overviews, just from the published Eat Smart Play Hard literature, suggest concerns about the misinformation and scares being given young children. And more concerning, is what young children are learning. The Times Press Recorder gave us a glimpse inside one of these programs this week, in its article describing the Eat Smart Play Hard program in San Luis Obispo County:

Free program teaches importance of good nutrition and getting exercise

San Luis Obispo County is tackling America’s obesity epidemic at its most basic level — children. Eat Smart. Play Hard. San Luis Obispo County!, a free, county-sponsored program, teaches kids and a significant adult in their lives about the importance of good nutrition and getting enough exercise. The program is currently held at Tullius Chiropractic and Pilates Center in Grover Beach...

Recently, the class gathered at Tullius Chiropractic for the second to last session of the series. “It fits well with our business,” said teacher Erin Tullius, who co-owns Tullius Chiropractic with her husband. “It’s very easy to implement program. It’s been going well.” At the beginning of the class, Tullius took her place at the front of the center’s Pilates studio, to give a lesson on the new food pyramid... healthy whole grains and raw vegetables [raw food recommendations as such aren’t part of the pyramid] are at the base of the pyramid, while less-nutritious white rice and french fries are at the top of the pyramid...

“It’s really helpful to come here and see how much sugar is in something. It’s good for them to see,” she said, referring to an activity where the kids physically measured out the amount of sugar in a select group of food items during a previous session. Another mom...says she has also noticed some changes in her 8-year-old son...since beginning the program. “He’s paying more attention that we have balanced meals. He informed his dad that McDonald’s [a food brand] was bad for him the other day...

[Kids] said they like to eat healthy. “I usually try to get salads at my school,” said an Ocean View Elementary School student... “Eating healthy can change your life and eating bad can destroy your life,” he said.

These are first graders, already anxious about if the food they eat is healthy and safe to eat, already dieting and eating salads for lunch, and fearing foods that they believe will destroy their lives. These are little kids being taught vitalism beliefs about raw foods and processed foods, and near magical healthful properties of certain foods — all through a government-funded program. None of these foods will hurt them, but they’re being taught to fear foods popularly believed to be fattening and dangerous. These youngsters are being set up for a lifetime of fears and dysfunctional relationships about eating and their bodies, and worse, jeopardizing their health and well being.

What about the evidence?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has repeatedly found insufficient evidence to recommend counseling to promote healthy eating in adults or children. Similarly, public health messages and interventions to promote healthy eating and physical activity for the prevention of childhood obesity have been shown to lack credible evidence of effectiveness or safety. And even feel-good initiatives to encourage more fruits and vegetables have been shown to be complete flops. A misuse of many hundreds of millions of dollars in public health resources that, if health was the real priority, could be used to provide healthcare to countless underprivileged children.

As was recently reported by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, after 15 years of massive nationwide efforts, the 5-A-Day for Better Health Program has had no effect on getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables. Nor did a review of the body of evidence support the scientific rationale for this national program. The science — which continues to show that, beyond the basic prevention of deficiencies, the near magical benefits being claimed for fruits and vegetables and ‘healthy eating’ aren’t supportable by available evidence — hasn’t slowed support for these programs, either.

There are hundreds upon hundreds of organizations and agencies eagerly getting in on the grants to promote healthy eating and fitness programs — funds that have grown 2,000% just since 1999 as part of childhood obesity initiatives. They are not going to be the source of re-evaluating these programs and getting the message out to parents and consumers that they lack efficacy. That may be why we’ve never heard that Eat Smart Play Hard has all the appearances of teaching kids to diet, restrict foods and control weight by purging calories.

Shouldn’t programs targeting disadvantaged and fat children be grounded in good science and actually shown to help them — with demonstrated benefits that outweigh the potential harms? Don’t all children deserve that much?

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

Bookmark and Share