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There’s a dangerous thread running through the national conversation about kids and food, and it is this: If you talk to your kids about food, if you teach them to understand ingredients and to actually think about what they eat — and, heaven forbid, you actually limit junk food — you are setting them up for, at best, rebellion-fueled binges, or, at worst, an eating disorder.

I cry foul.

The truth is we are doing our kids far more good than harm by teaching them to think critically about food. Food isn’t food anymore. Check the ingredients, take a bite. Even everyday staples contain troubling additives. Foods are now “fortified” because vitamins have been stripped in processing. Flavors have been manipulated to be addictive. And the food supply is increasingly adulterated by pesticides, GMOS and the taint of factory farming. And it’s never “just one” anything anymore. Special treats used to be just that — special. But the combination of relentless food marketing and a harried, mobile society has created a 24/7 food culture that feeds kids any time they gather, a culture that uses food for everything from reward to distraction.

The fallout of this onslaught is astonishing: More than a third of children are now overweight or obese. Kids are being treated for high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes (formerly called “adult-onset diabetes”). And this generation of children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents. Along with this crisis of metabolic syndrome, we’ve seen an unprecedented rise in the number of children with allergies, behavioral disorders and digestive conditions increasingly associated with the standard American diet (acronym: SAD).

That’s what we really need to worry about. Not correlations based on fear instead of fact.

Education, not deprivation

I get it. Eating disorders are scary. If you haven’t experienced one yourself, you likely know someone who has. For me, it was close friends in both high school and college, and then covering the issue as a health care reporter. And now there’s an especially frightening movement called “pro-ana,” which, among other things, glorifies the physical attributes of anorexia. So yes, this is disturbing stuff. But eating disorders are not about food — they are complicated psychological conditions that manifest in food.

So what about people who say they had food-restricted childhoods and then developed eating disorders? Look closely and you’ll likely see one or more of these themes: adult role models who were obsessed with dieting, weight and calorie-counting; food used as reward, punishment or other emotional manipulative; and, in some cases, extreme outright bans of entire food categories (e.g., no sweets ever, no matter the ingredients or frequency).

Then look closely at what’s not there: rational, thoughtful food choices; awareness of how those food choices affect our bodies; and children brought into the conversation in a way that encourages learning and critical thinking.

Done right, teaching children about food empowers them. It doesn’t scare them or make them anxious or cause them to binge. And it does not cause eating disorders. As I often say when people ask whether I give my own daughter sweets or other treats: Food literacy is about education, not deprivation.

So hell yes we have sweets. And potato chips. And boxed mac and cheese. Even soda. But the sweets are homemade or, if store-bought, made with recognizable ingredients. The chips are the real deal (potatoes, oil, salt).  The mac and cheese is Annie’s, not Kraft. The soda is seltzer and fruit juice, not high-fructose corn syrup and caramel color. And, importantly, Tess knows why we make the decisions we do. We don’t ban or demonize whole categories of food. We choose based on ingredients and sourcing, and how foods taste and make us feel. Even treats can (and should) be high-quality. Kids can indulge in childhood pleasures like lemonade and popsicles, cupcakes, candy and the rest without also indulging in petroleum-derived food dyes, dangerous trans fats and chemical preservatives, and the countless other synthetic additives that make a mess of  even simple foods.

Junk food doesn’t have to be junk food.

Bad foods, bad mantras

Does that mean I think some foods are “bad”? It sure does. Though it’s really about the ingredients, not the food itself. Is cake bad? No. Is a neon-frosted, 50-ingredient, processed-to-within-an-inch-of-palatability grocery-store cake bad? Yes.

Food manufacturers and marketers, and even many dietitians and nutritionists, adopt a mantra of “there are no bad foods” or “everything in moderation” or “there’s a place in our diet for all foods.” In a different time, with a different food supply and a different food culture, those mantras might have meant something. Not anymore.

Just because a company makes something and calls it “food,” just because stores stock it or restaurants sell it or your TV advertises it, that doesn’t mean we have to buy it, eat it or feed it to our kids.

Here’s Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an epidemiologist with the Harvard School of Public Health, quoted in a New York Times article about a 2011 study finding that not all calories are equal:  “There are good foods and bad foods, and the advice should be to eat the good foods more and the bad foods less. The notion that it’s O.K. to eat everything in moderation is just an excuse to eat whatever you want.”

Similarly, people like to claim that if you limit sweets and other non-nutritive treats, that you’re asking for trouble when your kids get older. But Kelly Brownell, who just left his post as head of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity (for a new job at Duke), says that’s not true. Here’s an excerpt from an NPR story in March:

Some parents worry that having only healthy foods at home will lead kids to overdo it with junk food when they head off to college. But Brownell says there’s no evidence to support this worry. And, in fact, the reverse is probably true.

Even if the young adults indulge in unhealthy foods at first, they’re far more likely to return to the healthy foods they grew up with. “Having only good foods around the house makes all the sense in the world, and research supports this,” he says.

Backlash and back-to-basics

Are there exceptions? Sure. And there are extremes, too. I had a conversation with another mother before Halloween. She asked how I handle the candy Tess collects trick-or-treating. I explained how we sort-and-toss (or save for gingerbread houses) based on ingredients. (More details in this post.) And how Tess eats a few pieces of the junky stuff and then has no interest. We’ve always let Tess taste whatever she wants, on the theory that it will make her better appreciate the real stuff (and it does). And I’ve also tried to instill the idea that if something has bad ingredients, the only reason to eat it is if it tastes really (really) good. Otherwise there’s no point.

This mother keeps her son and family on a strict diet of extremely low (or no) sugar and fat — it doesn’t matter the source, doesn’t matter whether it’s homemade or not — so it wasn’t a surprise to me what she said next: “I wish (son’s name) would do that. But he gets candy in front of him and he eats it all.”

See, this is where things get tricky. And hazy. And this is why so many people are so quick to paint all food-conscious parents with the same broad brush (namely, orthorexia). As I’ve written before, I believe these fears and criticisms are in part a knee-jerk backlash against the so-called “elitist” organic movement. Apparently it’s OK for parents to say no to, oh, violent video games and inappropriate tween clothing, but limit what their kids eat? Horrors!

Seriously, though, do you know why else I think people react like this? Because they’re scared. And stressed. And overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of food information out there. Every day, there’s a new study or article that contradicts some other study or article. There’s debate about this diet, that diet, the best diet, the only diet. Agendas are epidemic. And staying on top of it all is exhausting. (I know!) So people shut down. They throw up their hands. They eagerly embrace claims that moderation trumps ingredients, and that talking to kids about this stuff creates eating disorders. Because to believe otherwise is to face, once again, that torrent of information.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. My husband and I decided long ago that we’d abide one “food rule”: Eat food as close to its natural source as possible, as often as possible. We don’t count calories or worry about nutrient grams or percentages, or obsess over making sure every bite is nutritionally optimized. We try to select whole foods or else packaged foods that are minimally processed and have recognizable ingredients, foods that generally can be categorized as SOLE: sustainable, organic, local and ethical. When you view food through that lens, things look a lot simpler. Truly.

Though if you want a more guided approach to eating real food, check out the terrific blog 100 Days of Real Food. Blogger Lisa Leake breaks it down and makes real food seem accessible in a way no one else does. And while you’re there, read this heartfelt post Lisa wrote after being told by some readers that she was setting her daughters up for eating disorders.

Education. Not deprivation. Big difference.


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