Junkfood Science: Lessons for the youngest school children — what can make you weak, diseased, fat, and deviant

August 07, 2008

Lessons for the youngest school children — what can make you weak, diseased, fat, and deviant

Between February and May, 2001, an experiment was conducted on nineteen underprivileged minority teen boys incarcerated in a residential school by the Florida court system. They were made to participate in a psychological experiment and without the fully informed consent of their parents. The experiment was not conducted by a medical doctor, nor a licensed practitioner in child development or psychology. For three weeks, the boys were told they had been exposed to poisons and that was why they had aggressive and deviant behavior problems, and that invisible poisons had made them sick, fat, sluggish and dumb.

They were given a special, what we’ll call, potion to take every day, along with 3 quarts of filtered water, and told it would purify their bodies of poisons and make them healthy, get rid of their acne, give them unlimited energy and strength, help them lose weight, and make them feel alert and happy and reduce their feelings of anger.

By one week into the experiment, the children were writing in their journals:

“In a couple of days...I already felt different like I had more energy and felt more energetic.”

“It had me thinking faster and wise. It was like I was just born...I was fully energized.”

“I believe it makes my body healthier, keeps my skin clearer, and keeps me thinking more positive.”

“Today I woke up with more energy and felt good about the day... and I didn’t get as tired... felt a lot of strength in my body.”

“I feel just energized. Today I woke up feeling cleansed. I really feel that I am a new person. I feel that my body is purified...I now have unlimited energy... I feel exuberant.”

“I’m full of strength. I feel like Hercules... I now feel like my body is just 100% purified blood and organs... This morning I aroused up feeling like I was full of just stamina. I wish I could incite the whole world about this very spectacular experience. I feel now when I run I move very swift now... I can just feel my brain thinking better.”

Of course, what was just demonstrated were the effects of placebo and nocebo and how easy it is to manipulate impressionable children. The boys had come to strongly believe that this special potion was responsible for how they felt. At the end of the experiment, many expressed fears and anxiety about no longer having their potion and with consuming the hidden poisons again.

This experiment was never published in a peer-reviewed journal. It would never have gotten past an institutional review board — there are strong ethical guidelines on human experimentation since the Nuremberg Code, which especially look out for the welfare of under-age children and other vulnerable populations, as in prisons and institutional settings, who are not in positions to give voluntary, informed consent.

But while this experiment was never published, what should concern every parent and child advocate in this country is that this program is being administered by lay volunteers, who passionately believe in its ideology, in elementary schools across the country. For real. To date, 450 schools are reported to have administered this program, also likely without the full informed consent of the children’s parents. When the program is presented to school districts, parents, and the public, it is couched in such feel-good language that few would ever suspect what children are actually being taught.

With the new school year about to begin, parents of elementary age children might want to know.

The curriculum

I used the term 'potion' in the opening to make it easier to objectively see, without any other baggage getting in the way, how easily the children in this study were frightened about unseen dangers and how quickly and completely they could be convinced they felt differently — just by giving them water and what could have been any placebo.

Hundreds of elementary children are now being taught this same program, in the name of teaching them healthy eating. Its literature and even the uncritical depictions from mainstream media give parents little indication of the actual curriculum.

The program is called Food is Elementary and is promoted as working to change “the health destinies of children” by teaching them “life-long healthy eating.” It is working to incorporate its curriculum into school classrooms, school lunch programs and the global community. It describes itself as a hands-on nutrition education program that fights obesity and “saves the health of our young people.”

This elementary school program says it “teaches about food, nutrition and healthy living by educating children about the relationship between food choices and disease prevention.” According to the curriculum, it begins with an introduction to the food pyramid, with the base being the foundation of a healthy diet, and the children begin their weekly food journals. But it is more radical than the USDA Eat Smart Play Hard curriculum. This program teaches veganism, the most extreme and restrictive vegetarian food ideology that eliminates all animal and dairy products. Food is Elementary teaches that animal products, nonorganic foods, sugars, fats, and ‘processed foods’ poison their bodies and lead to heart disease, dementia, cancers and obesity. [All food fears previously covered in-depth. See Google search tool.]

“The children learn the concept of dietary fat and why too much fat can lead to chronic disease,” according to the curriculum outline. “They learn that fat sticks to the inside of your blood vessels and why that can be a problem. They then can taste and/or touch 5 different milk products...and identify the fat "feel" by determining which milk has the most fat by observing which milk sticks to their finger the most.” They go on to compare foods according to their “fat and sugar grams” and write the number of grams next to the foods in their journals, and seek homemade and whole foods. “They also talk about the way exercise makes them feel good” and helps prevent the buildup of fat in their arteries. They learn the color of foods that are the best sources of vitamins, that refined grains are unhealthy and how whole grains differ. And they explore different vegan cultures around the world, focused on the grains, vegetables and legumes.

These youngsters are not helped to enjoy all foods or given science-based nutritional education, but are told scary overwhelming messages that "bad" foods will harm them and a vegan diet is what’s safe and healthful to eat.

Bryant Stamford, professor and chairman of the department of exercise science at Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana, wrote promoting the program in the February 27, 2008 issue of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel [no online archive available], saying:

Health-destroying eating habits start early in life... Several efforts to change the way kids eat are ongoing throughout the country. One of the most successful is sponsored by the Food Studies Institute... called Food is Elementary, offered through schools. The program emphasizes education as a starting point... The program can be offered as an after-school enrichment program, or it can be meshed into the daily curriculum...

Our children must be made aware of the relationship between what they eat and their health and their level of obesity. They learn about the bad effects of junk foods and the good effects of fruits, vegetables and whole grains...

Among its successes, Food is Elementary claims that children “develop a preference for fruits, vegetables and whole foods over processed junk foods;” reduce their BMI and improve health “in just weeks,” unlike every program to date with published results; and that there’s a “dramatic improvement in the behavior, mind set and academic performance of troubled teens.”

Among vegan groups promoting this program, food and behavior are linked and troubled teens can be helped by veganism, and that people need to move “eventually towards whole foods or raw food veganism.”


In the fall 2001 issue of Health Science, Pamela Gerry, RN, member and former board member of the National Health Association, wrote about the program and its founder, professor Antonia Demas. By the age of 14, professor Demas "had trained herself to distain the taste of meat" and decided to be a vegetarian. Through Food is Elementary and allied groups, she is working to implement a plant-based food curriculum into schools, believing a vegan diet can boost kids’ grades, energy, self-image and leadership skills.

According to professor Demas’ website, this program is an outgrowth of her 1995 doctoral project while at Cornell University, called the Trumansburg Study. She claimed that after a “sensory experience in the classroom,” kindergarten to fourth grade kids ate more commodity foods in the lunchroom compared to control students [for how long is unknown] and that 35% of parents reported “positive changes in family eating behavior.” No published study is provided to support these assertions or the subjective parental comments, but the program was reported as receiving awards for creative ways to implement the new government Dietary Guidelines.

The only support provided on the website as evidence for this program are three anecdotal reports, none published, of elementary school pilot programs dating back to 1998, which vaguely say only that the program improved the children’s “understanding of nutrition,” decreased the “BMI for 49 out of 68 children,” and changed eating behaviors “from unhealthy to healthy.”

Only one study profile provides insight into what the children are actually being told, as was vividly described through the journals of those 19 boys at the Bay Point School for Boys in Miami. In that 2001 “Plant-based nutrition pilot study,” the boys adopted a “strict, whole-foods, plant-based” vegan diet for three weeks, along with 8 glasses of water a day and close behavior monitoring.

None of the reported results during those three weeks were statistically significant, or verified or shown sustainable, nor was any risk-benefit analysis performed. But the journals that the boys kept during those weeks, provide the most disturbing look at how these vulnerable, troubled children had been misled to fear the health dangers of animal products and conventionally-grown foods, and convinced of the placebo effect of their vegan diet:

Warren wrote: I learned a lot.. what not to eat. I mean that certain foods like cow, chicken and all these other foods carry lots of fat, hormones, chemicals that they feed them... My grades have sky-rocketed big, I have felt way better towards myself. I would wake up with a natural high every morning. I would think positive, always have a positive mind frame. I would no longer have a craving towards meat, chicken. I just wanted to eat vegetarian food...

Luis wrote of: field trips to an organic farm... No fertilizers, no pesticides, not even pipe water... I learned how pesticides and fertilizers can effect your body in harmful ways as in cancer and other illnesses... that the animals we eat as in chicken, cow, pork, and so on, are raised in a factory and are fed steroids until they are slaughtered to eat. It made me really want to stop eating meat. Then they told me about how there is a veggie substitute of almost every meat product including dairy products... when I found out the benefits as in health and energy... I already felt different like I had more energy and felt more energetic.

Rodney wrote: It had me thinking faster and wiser. It was like I was just born... I was fully energized and not [only] had time to do all my work but did all my work plus more... I was a happier person, but on the meat I was always mean and lazy.

Brian wrote: I believe it makes my body healthier, keeps my skin clearer, and keeps me thinking more positively... a lot of people were telling me it could help the way I felt about life, keep me healthy... Today I woke up with more energy and felt good about the day. I worked all day long in the cafeteria cleaning and stocking things and I didn’t get as tired as I felt I would... I think I feel this way because from drinking all of the water I am running all of the red meat and unhealthy foods through my body and cleaning it out... The water seemed to clear out my sinuses and give me back strength in my body as well as the fruit and vegetables helping out as well. My skin is starting to clear up so much because I am not eating any kinds of food with grease or fat... It seems this diet is also making my mind feel like when I feel bad I should just tell myself not to feel that way cause I have all healthy things in my body, energy, and I get along with others better as well.

Willie wrote that while skeptical in the beginning: I am really feeling many changes. Sometimes when I want to be mad, I just be calm. My body is also feeling like it is a big battery that is slowly recharging. Today I woke up with a wide sum of energy.. feeling very energized... I am starting to feel like this diet is cleaning my body... Today I woke up feeling cleansed. I really feel that I am a new person. I feel that my body is purified... I now have unlimited energy... I feel exuberant... I’m full of strength. I feel like Hercules... I now feel like my body is just 100% purified blood and organs. I never knew such a diet like this can make a tremendous effect like this... I wish I could incite the whole world about this very spectacular experience. I feel now when I run I move very swift now. Ever since I have been participating in this diet, I can just feel my brain thinking better... I woke up in the middle of the night and did exercise... This morning I woke up feeling invincible. I went to school full of nothing but energy...

Such is the transient power of nocebo and placebo. But no research has been published to provide any evidence in support of this program — there is no evidence for beneficial health outcomes or sustained eating behavior changes. Nowhere has the harmful effects in young children of this program been evaluated. The website provides only testimonials. But this program is being offered at hundreds of elementary schools across the country, seeking to advance veganism and “to change the school culture.”

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

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