Watch Out for the Food Police
The multi-billion dollar diet industry shows no mercy while hunting its prey—impressionable consumers of all ages. Major corporations responsible for the manufacturing of diet foods and weight loss products viscously capitalize on the glorified beauty standards and expectations that are prevalent in our society today. The most vulnerable of these victims are the children and adolescents who are constantly exposed to images and misinformation that entices them to follow this ill-fated path on their quest for unattainable perfection. While bombarded with this negativity throughout their social interactions and media exposure, one may expect that the school classroom would be a safe haven from further diet propaganda. However, this is not so. In an earnest attempt to battle the epidemic of childhood obesity, health educators in public schools have implemented a curriculum that teaches impressionable young students the misguided notion that calories are bad for you. This overgeneralization is incredibly hazardous, and young learners need to be properly informed on the subject in order to make healthy dietary choices.
Most simplistically, a calorie is a unit of energy. Without energy, our bodies would cease to function. This cessation could result in the inability to run or work out, but what we often neglect to realize is that this could also result in no heartbeat or breathing. Without question, the human body requires, yes requires, energy. Since this is the case, then it is a grave disservice to society to indoctrinate the masses with the misconception that calories are bad and must be limited by everyone.
Registered dietician, Wendy Kapsak, purports the dyer importance of understanding the concept of energy balance. This concept refers to the amount of calories required by an individual, depending upon the energy they expend through physical activity, as well as their basal metabolic rate. It is abundantly clear that this balance will be unique for everyone. Therefore, a “one size fits all” ideology regarding caloric needs is extremely dangerous and simply inaccurate. A massive confusion has been created among young people due to the irresponsible dissemination of information within schools by self-appointed “experts” in the field of health and nutrition.
A survey conducted by the International Food Information Council revealed an overwhelming 44% of people underestimate their daily caloric needs based on their age, weight, height, and activity level. This lack of understanding develops at a young age through the advocating for a low calorie diet that occurs in classrooms. Rather than creating a negative connotation associated with calories, children must be taught about the necessity for a highly individualized calorie balance that is soundly supported by science.
Furthermore, although many are able to comprehend that food provides fuel for the body, there is still a disconnect in the understanding of the correlation between calories and expended energy in this equation. In Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, the authors explain the metabolic function of how the body converts calories to energy. “Metabolism is the term given to the entire process of using the molecules in the food you eat to maintain your basic functions, build new molecules characteristic of your own body, use your muscles, and produce energy.” Encouraging young people to limit the quantity of calories they consume is ultimately encouraging them to deprive their bodies of much needed energy. Students need to learn how to properly evaluate their caloric needs based on the many factors that contribute to their individual metabolic functions.
A more appropriate alternative for nutrition education is to focus on the benefits that various food products can contribute to a well balanced diet. Adam Drewnowski explains how nutrient profiling has been used for years to identify nutrient dense foods. This profiling system does not villainize foods that society considers to be high calorie, but rather praises foods that are a rich source of healthful vitamins and minerals. For example, avocados and nuts contain more calories than other food options, yet are dense in some of the most essential nutrients and healthy fats. Conversely, a sugar free soft drink, such as Diet Coke, contains zero calories, but has no nutritional value whatsoever. This strongly contradicts the lessons that are representative of the health education curriculums nationwide. Teaching practices would be better focused on information related to nutrition density in order to aid students in making healthy and balanced dietary decisions.
The term balance must also be emphasized to the vulnerable young minds in the classroom. The concept “all foods fit” is a mindset that is paramount for today’s youth to adopt, as our diet obsessed society continues to thrive on disordered eating behaviors. Health instructors must make it clear that it is normal, healthy, and acceptable for an individual’s diet to contain a balance of nutrient rich foods, while also incorporating foods that are simply enjoyable, such as sweet treats. Moreover, referring to foods as “good” or “bad” further perpetuates the vicious mindset that distorts adolescents’ perception of how to fuel their body and encourages individuals to buy into unhealthy habits.
Adolescents are notorious for their poor judgement and inability to make sound decisions. In other words, teenagers lack common sense. This often reckless and impulsive behavior cannot merely be attributed to angsty teenage rebellion, as it actually has scientific reasoning behind it. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, responsible for impulse control and executive functions needed for decision making, is not yet fully developed during adolescent years. Furthermore, adolescents are inexperienced and base many of their decisions on social norms or how they desire to be perceived by others. The combination of these two circumstances creates the perfect storm for poor choices that tragically impact an adolescent’s well being. This reality must be taken into consideration by educators who may not realize the full extent of damage that their ill conceived lessons truly have on a young mind.
In order to fully comprehend the causes of the poor decision making that is common among adolescents, one must understand the steps involved in making a decision. Adolescent medicine specialist, Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, explains that there are five steps in any decision making process. One must identify options, recognize their possible consequences, evaluate the impact each consequence poses, assess the probability of each outcome, and ultimately, determine the best action to take. For an adult, this process is second nature, however, there are numerous factors that interfere with a teenager’s ability to execute these steps successfully.
For example, when an adolescent is presented with an opportunity for a sexual experience, they often consciously disregard the possible devastating consequences of having unprotected sex. In their inexperienced and impulsive minds, they are not able to accurately assess the probability of an outcome or evaluate how desirable an outcome might be because hindsight is not available. This creates the ever popular, “That will never happen to me” mindset. While the concepts of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases have been drilled into their brains, the probability that these outcomes will actually afflict them, seems slim-to-none. As a result, an overall sense of invincibility clouds their judgement. The enticement of having sex is a much greater force that dominates over the fear of taking a risk. Therefore, teens are likely to engage in unprotected sex and reap the repercussions thereof.
Conversely, for most adults, their prior experiences guide them through the process of making a decision. They review outcomes from past decisions to make informed choices in the present. Adults know that unprotected sex can yield unwanted pregancies and deadly diseases. Furthermore, a defining characteristic of teenage immaturity is their susceptibility to peer influences. In an article written by Jeanne Miller, she discusses a study conducted by Dr. B. J. Casey, a professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College. In this study, participants were monitored through a brain-scanning machine while performing various tasks. The reward center of the adolescent brain responded dramatically more than that of children and adults. Casey concluded that the adolescent response to peer approval was comparable to the satisfaction they experienced when they successfully completed a task.
Another study by Halpern-Felsher concluded “…that adolescents care greatly about whether they are popular or look more grown up, and such desires to gain positive social feedback and avoid negative social consequences influences their decisions.” Adolescence is a time when individuals are beginning to experience more independence. They often begin to spend less time with their caregivers, broadening their horizons, and experiencing more autonomy. This newfound independence results in increased exposure to social pressures, such as body image standards, which in turn, creates a desire for peer validation. The inability to weigh consequences effectively and make sound decisions is impaired and overpowered by the desire to be accepted and perceived in a positive light.
While these external variables greatly influence teenage decision making abilities, a greater impact is attributed to the physiology of the brain. Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher explains, “The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions, including cognition, thought, imagination, abstract thinking, planning, and impulse control.” These functions are most essential when a decision must be made. However, the gray matter that makes up this part of the brain physically decreases and is replaced by white matter as the brain matures. During this process, the functions this part of the brain is responsible for are compromised until approximately the mid-twenties. As a result, teenagers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
When all of these factors that influence decision making are considered, it is clear that adolescents are at a disadvantage when presented with important life choices. Guidance from not only their guardians, but from other influential adults in their lives, such as educators, is imperative. In fact, public school curriculum throughout the United States has become increasingly more responsible for teaching young learners about appropriate choices in many aspects of their lives. One of the most important aspects is health education. With all of these negative factors limiting a teenager’s ability to make a quality decision, it is important that these adults do not become an additional stumbling block.
The overwhelming challenges of the teenage years do not need further amplification through the misguided efforts of educators who lack proper training. When educators indoctrinate adolescents with inaccurate information, they risk encouraging their students to use that information irresponsibly. For example, the damage that occurs in the health classroom, where students are preached to on the importance of a low calorie diet, is detrimental to their health. While the intent of these educators is not malicious, the lessons do not apply to all students whose dietary needs vary vastly. Adolescents are already burdened with peer pressure and the hunger for social validation, so they use this misinformation in an effort to meet social standards. This, along with their immature brain development and lack of experience, can make it exceedingly more difficult for a teenager to navigate through the multiple steps involved in making good decisions. In this particular scenario, adolescents are highly likely to experience serious negative outcomes, such as eating disorders and the plethora of health complications that stem from them.
In recent years teenage eating disorders have emerged as a mental health issue of epidemic proportions. The harsh reality is that anorexia accounts for the highest mortality rate among all mental health issues. While public schools have been increasingly burdened with more responsibilities, the delicate subject of anorexia often has been neglected in the wake of another plight—obesity. It is undeniable that childhood and adolescent obesity rates in the United States continue to remain at an all time high. However, the solution to this epidemic must not be the relentless encouragement to restrict caloric intake and the glorification of a thin physique, as this merely fuels the anorexia epidemic—the deadliest of all mental health issues. Proponents of the belief that a public health education should prioritize the war against obesity, which undoubtedly continues to plague our youth, are sorely mistaken. In order to teach “healthy” dietary habits to children, it first must be acknowledged that obesity can stem from a plethora of circumstances beginning early in a child’s life. Advocating for a low calorie diet to battle obesity will certainly have a negative impact on the emotional health of these children, and a possibly deadly impact on those struggling in the opposite direction. It must become sound teaching practice to teach children that all foods fit, and personal caloric intake greatly varies among individuals.
Helen Skouteris highlights the Nurturing Care Framework from the World Health Organization, in regards to properly addressing childhood obesity issues. This framework suggests that emphasis on caregiver nurturing during the developmental years is key to preventing childhood obesity. It explains that “…child[hood] obesity prevention must be based on a deep understanding of the layers of influence surrounding the child as they transition across the ages and stages of development that occur in the first 2,000 days.” It seems unlikely that an overweight child sitting in a health education classroom surrounded by judgemental peers will be significantly impacted by an isolated lesson on “proper” caloric intake. According to the World Health Organization framework, childhood obesity stems from a deeply rooted lack of nurturing that occurs early in a child’s life. Perhaps the child has grown to depend on food as a source of comfort that was not provided by their caregiver. Surely, simply telling these troubled youth to limit their caloric intake will not “cure” them of their need to seek refuge in food. With this knowledge that the lesson will not be beneficial to its intended audience, it is foolish to expose children who are susceptible to restrictive eating disorders to this toxic dietary advice that could result in tragedy.
Another contributing factor to childhood obesity emphasized in the World Health Organization’s framework is the impact that socioeconomic status has on the prevalence of obesity in children. Skouteris explains the relationship between high obesity rates that are common among low-income minority groups. The lack of access to healthy food options and quality healthcare, aggravated by negative childhood experiences often result in the inability to maintain a healthy weight. It is abundantly clear that a child in such a circumstance would not benefit from a health class lecture, as their issues stem from substantial burdens that cannot be remedied from limiting their caloric intake. Rather, a thorough understanding of each child’s unique experiences throughout their developmental years is necessary to even begin to help them address their obesity issues. Clearly, this is not a realistic goal that can be achieved in a classroom setting, and therefore the subject should not be incorporated into the curriculum.
Furthermore, children in these low socioeconomic situations tend to spend more of their leisure time engaged in screen activities. This can be attributed to various reasons including the inability to afford participation in organized activities or the need to keep children from being exposed to dangers in an unsavory neighborhood. This further exacerbates the obesity problem. In a study conducted by Joost Oude Groeniger, it was revealed that “[s]creen media exposure may affect body weight by increasing food consumption and exposure to food and beverage advertisements, lowering energy expenditure, and reducing sleep duration.” Obviously, when children are sedentary for extended periods of time in front of a screen, they are not using the amount of calories that would be expended when engaging in virtually any other activity. If circumstances out of their control are contributing to their obesity, it is both useless and detrimental to their emotional well-being to suggest an “easy fix” to their problem—eat less calories.
Angela Golden, owner of NP Obesity Treatment Clinic in Arizona, maintains the harsh reality that genetic predisposition accounts for approximately 70% of all incidents of obesity. “Genes can predispose individuals to having obesity by affecting appetite regulation, food consumption, metabolism, body-fat distribution, and body mass index (BMI), as well as influencing food preferences, [and] response to exercise…” The role of genetics is an extremely powerful force working against any efforts that an obese child may attempt. The recommendations presented by health educators may be futile and ultimately create an even deeper degree of frustration and depression. For example, a child may have every intent to limit their calorie intake, but their genetically predisposed larger appetite may prevent them from comfortably doing so. Likewise, genetic makeup that controls food preferences combined with a hyperfocus on only consuming low calorie foods, may create another issue. In a child’s effort to only eat low calorie foods, the pool from which they can choose the foods they like and have access to becomes even more limited and may result in an accidental deprivation of much needed nutrients.
The logic that teaching children to consume less calories in order to combat the obesity that afflicts many seems reasonable. However, these misguided teaching practices ignorantly disregard the true origins that may be responsible for a child being overweight. The issue typically stems from much deeper roots such as an emotional dependence on food for comfort, their socioeconomic status, and their genetic makeup. Addressing a child’s obesity is a highly individualistic process and cannot be done en masse.
The time has come for our society to remedy the mindset that has brainwashed our youth and criminalized high calorie foods that can safely exist in a healthy diet. The young minds, with underdeveloped brains, are incapable of deciphering inaccurate information from sound science. The damaging words of health educators will not reduce childhood obesity. Rather, these words pose the threat to harm not only the mental health of these children, but also encourage restrictive eating disorders among others. The target on the backs of vulnerable young consumers must be removed.
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Golden, A. & Kessler, C. (2020). Obesity and genetics. Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, 32 (7), 493-496. doi: 10.1097/JXX.0000000000000447.
Halpern-Felsher, B. (2009). Adolescent decision making: an overview. The Prevention Researcher, 16(2), 3+.
Kapsak, W. R., DiMarco-Crook, C., Hill, J. O., Toner, C. D., & Edge, M. S. (2013). Confusion on All Sides of the Calorie Equation: Lessons… : Nutrition Today Nutrition Today (Annapolis), 48(5), 195–202.
Miller, J. (2015). The Debt We Owe to the Adolescent Brain. Odyssey, 24(3), 6–10.
Nestle, M., & Nesheim, M. (2012). Why calories count : From science to politics. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Oude Groeniger, J. , de Koster, W. & van der Waal, J. (2020). Time-varying Effects of Screen Media Exposure in the Relationship Between Socioeconomic Background and Childhood Obesity. Epidemiology, 31 (4), 578-586. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000001210.
Skouteris, H. , Bergmeier, H. , Berns, S. , Betancourt, J. , Boynton-Jarrett, R. , Davis, M. , Gibbons, K. , Pérez-Escamilla, R. & Story, M. (9000). Reframing the early childhood obesity prevention narrative through an equitable nurturing approach. Maternal and Child Nutrition, , doi: 10.1111/mcn.13094.