Thursday, March 14, 2013

Are children’s gatherings featuring junk food overdone?

When I was in elementary school, except for recess, it was all work. School started after Labor Day with the Texas temperatures still in the 90’s, and no AC in site. And adults never gave us ice cream or popsicles to cool off. I don’t remember ever having classroom birthday and other celebrations featuring cupcakes topped with brightly colored frosting.

I’m not sure when the change occurred, but for modern children, there are many occasions both in and outside of school to celebrate with junk food. Halloween, Valentine’s, club meetings, and birthday celebrations almost always include treats. You never know when the birthdays are going to fall, so there could be several in a row.

Attempting to avoid the title “food police”, I’ve never written or talked about this issue. But I was inspired by a recent article written by U.S. News health columnist Yoni Freedhoof, “Why is everyone always giving my kids junk food?”

Freedhoof writes, “There's simply no occasion too small to not warrant a junk food accompaniment. But for me, the strangest part of all is the outcry that occurs if and when I point it out. My experiences have taught me that junk food as part of children's' activities has become so normalized that my questioning this sugary status quo genuinely offends people's sensitivities and sometimes even generates frank anger. People other than their parents giving children junk food shouldn't be considered "normal," and until that attitude changes, I guess I'll just have to keep pointing out how crazy our new normal has become.”

According to Freedhoof, father of three girls and a physician, a conservative estimate is that his children are being offered an average of at least 600 sugar-spiked calories of junk each and every week. Assuming a conservative 70 percent of that junk's calories are coming from sugar, that's 26.25 teaspoons of added sugar a week, or more than 14 pounds of the white stuff a year.

Maybe 26 teaspoons of sugar a week being offered is an exaggeration. But even half this amount is too much. I see four main issues with children eating so much sugar.

The first is the development of a real sweet tooth, which distorts taste buds and can lead to picky eating. The subtle flavors of many foods, including vegetables, may not be appreciated. Health promoting foods may be refused, since there will be a sweet available soon. Sweets are addictive, and if you start the habit early on, it’s really hard to change later in life.

Second, is the consumption of artificial colors, which are often married to sugar. A study by the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency in 2007 showed that the consumption of foods containing dyes could increase hyperactive behavior in children. Great to contribute to the classroom?

Third, sugar is a concentrated source of calories. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. The chance of an overweight child becoming a healthy weight as an adult is very low. My concern is the related complications they may experience, like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Plus, we all know that sweets are associated with tooth decay.

We should consider how to enjoy life and feel special with healthier choices and less junk food. For example, maybe parents and teachers could agree to have only one classroom celebration a month. Parents could bring in fruit and vegetable trays and a small amount of cake. All with birthdays that month would be recognized, even the children from families who are unable to contribute. Adults should always consider nutritional quality when providing food for other people’s children.  

I would love to get the opinion of the community on this issue, especially parents and teachers. Please e-mail your thoughts and suggestions to me, address below.

Margie Mansure, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and extension agent with NC Cooperative Extension. She offers personalized classes to improve the health of citizens in Watauga County through worksites, schools and community groups., (828)264-3061

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