Kids Not Learning Proper Nutrition
> 7/5/2007 12:11:32 PM

Reports on (and solutions to) the ever-expanding waistlines of new-generation Americans command a large swath of current multi-media health coverage. Why do our overweight children continue to grow larger, and how much good can public service projects actually do? Will they eat properly and exercise if mass-produced messages remind them how important these things are? According to recently published assessments, the $1 billion that the federal government spends every year on programs designed alert the population to the importance of dietary choices and physical activity is a misplaced, nearly pointless investment.

These results, most clearly visible among children high-school age and younger, are clear after more than a decade of government-directed health education initiatives: they simply don't work. Consumption of fruits and vegetables, for example, has actually declined slightly over the last two decades. Even after being bombarded by cartoons, lectures and demonstrations on the wonders of lettuce and celery, the average child still wants to grab chips and soda with lunch. When questioned, the child will in all likelihood recognize that greens are essential and that he or she needs to eat more of them. But such knowledge does not make decisions. And no matter how many times children hear repeated the fact that eating broccoli and lean poultry for dinner is inherently healthier than pizza delivery (even when said pie is topped with broccoli), simply possessing such common knowledge will not, in most cases, spur them to action; the vast majority of kids will go for convenience, salt and sugar above nutritional dictums every time.

Another common-sense finding posits that, no matter many junk food commercials they watch, how many apples they eat, or how often they work up a sweat on the treadmill, some kids will simply be larger than others. Many "overweight" individuals can lead long, perfectly healthy lives. Of course, this is not to negate the hugely influential properties of the variables mentioned above, and noting genetic predisposition is not a fatalistic excuse to eat while thinking only of the present moment. Without active health efforts, fat kids will obviously grow even bigger. Still, we return to the concept of a universal body model and the larger sense that, if one's shape does not look like the television says it should, one must be doing something very wrong. Such trends are detrimental to the health industry by distracting consumers from doing what they should: only slightly larger amounts of education, research and time are required for an individual to ascertain his or her ideal physical state and determine how best to achieve or maintain it. Advertising only confuses the issue. While many products advertise reduced fat, "diet" status, or organic production, these statements do not amount to universal advocacy or give the consumer free reign to consume them as often as possible. Eating too many crackers will cause one to gain weight, no matter what kind of oil manufacturers use in their preparation. Packaging may also lead one to believe that certain miracle foods are the keys to cardiovascular health, cancer prevention and inner enlightenment, but eating a pomegranate will not suddenly change one's disposition, and fixing a salad every day will do far more for general health than drinking a beverage fortified with vitamin C or ginko boloba.

Parental oversight is ultimately the most important determinant of diets for kids, and healthmandated trends point toward a sore need for progress in that area.  This is not to say that parents do not care about their children's health or put forth any effort to regulate it appropriately. Still millions of children watch junk food ads every day but, due to long-standing insistence on the part of their mothers and fathers, understand the detrimental nature of these foods. Parents who allow their children to eat without restraint generally breed unhealthy adults, particularly if they do not pick good foods for kids too young to grasp the concept of nutrition and make their own choices accordingly. This is not to say that a given child can never eat a cookie or a hamburger. But if these kids don't grow up to understand that one can't eat such things all the time, teaching them about the relative caloric content of tomatoes will not do much to alleviate the problem. So what can we do? It's clear that government-sponsored ad campaigns, even if they mean well, actually do very little. And our addiction to convenience foods shows no sign of abating. We have to change the way we eat, and an education beginning at home early in a child's life seems the most elemental factor.

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