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Adults Are Kids' Worst Enemy When It Comes to Obesity Prevention

childhood obesity, kids health

Yet another classroom celebration. And we wonder why kids can't lose weight?

Two articles last week left me wondering not, as CNN.com asked, why it’s so hard for kids to lose weight, but instead, why aren’t more kids obese? When it comes to eating healthfully, adults are the kids’ worst enemy.

The CNN piece, one part of a series on childhood obesity, let kids talk about how hard it is to pass up all the food they encounter all day everyday. The other was in the Atlantic and written by nutrition expert and public health advocate, Marion Nestle. She writes how the food industry has hidden behind the First Amendment in order to freely market crappy food to kids in just about every highly studied and effective way they pleased.

The obesity rate among kids has been called a national epidemic. But really, especially looking at these two articles together, we should think of it more like a national expectation.

Any adult who has ever tried to shed some pounds knows exactly why even the most motivated kids have a hard time eating right — deliciously bad-for-you food, and repeated reference to it, is everywhere. While adults have the option of avoiding the donut-filled break room or skipping lunch at the Chinese buffet, kids have very little control over the types of food they are exposed to and how often. What’s worse, the adults in their lives are often the biggest underminers — and no, dear commenters, I’m not necessarily referring to their parents. (Sidenote: whenever I write about childhood obesity and the Happy Meal marketing machine, I get a pile of responses saying things like “it’s the parents job to say no!” We’re not talking about an era in kids’ lives when the adult is not, for a large number of hours each day, actually present to say “no.”)

Even beyond the marketing genius of adult strangers — those whose PhDs have helped them discover new and effective ways of getting a five-year-old to question his parents’ judgment, for example — kids get plenty of messages from other mom-approved adults that it’s OK and desirable to always be stuffing one’s mouth.

We expect the fat kids — all kids, really — to know better and refuse the high-calorie treats. But how should kids resist birthday cupcakes and Valentine’s Day candy when the authority figures have organized the fun? Saying “no” requires kids be willing to stand out and answer questions from their peers, “why aren’t you eating a cupcake? Is it because you’re fat?” It calls on a lone child to go against her peer group in order to look at the big picture, the long-term consequences — a skill kids (and some adults) are still developing.

As the CNN piece points out, it’s not unusual for kids to sit in lunchrooms where, even when there’s a salad bar, there’s also a pizza buffet and an array of desserts. A surprising number of American students have teachers who dole out candy for good behavior and perfect spelling tests (candy rewards! In 2012!). Even physical activity like soccer practice or ballet class ends with everything from a handful of animal crackers to what appears to be a small meal made from a bag of Doritos and a yogurt stick — this just an hour before dinner.

With average elementary school class sizes in the 30s in some areas (even up to 40+ in others) there’s a pretty good chance that at least once a week a classmate is going to walk in with cupcakes. That kid may also have a party the following weekend. All this could coincide with Halloween or Christmas or Valentine’s Day … or a siblings birthday. That’s a lot of (1) candy and cake in a short amount of time and (2) a lot of saying “no” (though the heart says yes!) for a kid to have to do.

Then the TV ads for Gushers and hot wings later that night …

Marion Nestle put out a call a few months ago to get First Amendment scholars to weigh in on whether the food industry — which another Atlantic writer argued should be abolished altogether — has a constitutional right to sell Cap’n Crunch or Happy Meals to my kids. She links to a number of pieces in her post, including this one, a paper c0-authored by Samantha Graff of the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity. In it, they write:

[...] case law establishes that the First Amendment does not protect “inherently misleading” commercial speech. Cognitive research indicates that young children cannot effectively recognize the persuasive intent of advertising or apply the critical evaluation required to comprehend commercial messages.

Given this combination — that government can prohibit “inherently misleading” advertising and that children cannot adequately understand commercial messages — advertising to children younger than age 12  should be considered beyond the scope of constitutional protection.

The U.S. has been too reluctant to regulate advertising to kids and using the First Amendment as an excuse despite, as the authors point out, it’s essentially false advertisement. Supposed industry efforts to do better have also failed.

We’ve also been too reluctant, as parents, to come together and ask our institutions to stop with the garbage. Yes, we all have fond memories of Valentine’s Day growing up. And who didn’t love seeing their dad walk through the Kindergarten door with a box of cupcakes in honor of a birthday. But it’s too all too much. If candy is the only incentive that results in good classroom behavior, then that teacher needs a total overhaul of how he’s managing his class. If you need dessert to get kids to eat lunch at school or to fund the program, perhaps the lunch itself — and the funding strategy — needs an overhaul.

Oh, but it’s just a cupcake here and there, right? No. Actually, it’s candy and cupcakes everywhere kids go.

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