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Healthy Children

with Steven Parker, MD

This blog is now retired. Dr. P passed away on Monday, April 13, 2009. The WebMD Community will dearly miss his kind, caring, and often humorous manner.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake!

Billy sits in his 3rd grade classroom, happily munching on double Dutch chocolate cake with creme frosting.

Suddenly the door to the classroom is kicked open. Five policemen rush into the classroom and surround Billy. “Kid, we have a report you brought a toxic substance into the school and, even worse, are inciting other children to ingest it, much to their peril.”

Billy starts crying, “But it’s my favorite cake and it’s my 8th birthday and I brought enough for everybody.’

“Sorry, kid. We will have your cake analyzed at great taxpayer expense, but clearly you have violated the new statute of the State of California’s school nutritional standards which forbids any snacks during the school day containing more than 35% sugar by weight or 35% of their calories from fat or more than 10% of their calories from saturated fats. Kid, it’s the slammer for you. The good news is that you can eat all the cake you want in jail!”

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OK, I made up this scenario, which hasn’t taken place – at least not yet. But the law and its standards are real. I learned of it in a newpaper article about school bake sales being banned in California (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/10/us/10bake.html?_r=2&ref;=health&oref;=slogin&oref;=slogin).

Should you have a mistrust of agents of the government getting it right, here is exhibit #1,098,765. First, start with an excellent idea: food offered to kids while at school should be healthy, low in saturated fats and junk food and refined sugar, high in nutrition and fiber, etc.

So far so, good. The initiatives to make school breakfasts and lunches healthy are truly laudable. Banning soda and other junk drinks – instead offering only water and 100% juices – is the right thing to do. Trying to teach proper nutrition and eating habits is an appropriate role for schools where, after all, kids are eating 1-2 meals / day.

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But, as often happens, the well-meaning authorities don’t know where to stop. Banning cake sales? Does anyone believe that by banning bake sales from the premises, children will come to abhor cake and ice cream and all junk food, and live happily ever after in tofu & bok choy heaven?

Not me. Let’s deconstruct the article:

Misstatement #1:
Banning junk food from schools “will do for junk food what smoking bans and taxes did for cigarettes.” Forgive me, but what a dumb analogy. There is no inborn pleasure or motivation to smoke, but there certainly is to eat and for foods high in fats and sugar to be especially appealing. If the goal is to make kids hate cake and ice cream, lots of luck fighting city hall. In fact, I’d argue that, in the long run, prohibition only increases their allure, so that the deprived child may even want it more than s/he would have otherwise.

Misstatement #2:
You’re teaching them eating habits for life.” I have to say, there is no good research relating early eating habits to those in later life (except in extreme cases). Having watched a lot of kids grow up for a long time, I’m quite skeptical of this truism. The reason to promote healthy eating habits is to keep your kids and their arteries healthy, at least for the 18 years or so in which they are (sort of) in your clutches.

Misstatement #3:

I don’t think all celebrations need to be around food.” It is this attitude which led to the described “Healthy Halloween vegetable platter” for kindergartners, a “celebration” which must have bordered on child abuse in my book.

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A decade ago, when I was co-authoring Dr. Spock’s book, he came out strongly against cow’s milk for kids over age 2 years. It was a major bone of contention between Dr. Spock and me (guess who won). Aside from there being little to no credible evidence to ban milk from the diets of children, the idea of a childhood without ice cream was unthinkable to me.

I can’t help but believe that – aside from legitimate health concerns – the zealots are in some way anti-pleasure meanies (much like H. L Mencken’s definition of puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”). The answer is to teach moderation and smaller portion size, not a blanket prohibition of some of life’s great delights – cake, ice cream and, yes, even the occasional Twinkie.

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Posted by: Steven Parker MD at 3:15 pm

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