In 2017, I completed an hour internship with a non-for-profit out of Boston titled Eradicate Childhood Obesity (EChO). Our initiatives focused mostly on the ill-effects of added sugar consumption to the development of obesity in children, which I have written on before in this article (attach link). However, in the process I realized that added sugar is far from the only issue that parents face when trying to provide their children with a nutritious and healthy diet. You see, experts in the food industry are very smart people. These individuals know that as humans, we innately prefer certain foods, in particular those that contain sugar, fat, and salt. So, instead of working to develop products that provide us (and our children) the most nutrients, they work to produce products that target our innate preferences for sugar, fat, and salt. Don’t believe me? I took a look at some of the USDA food availability data, which looks at food consumption patterns over the years and summarized some of the big points below, followed by my own interpretation of the information and it’s implication on children:
**For reference, here is the USDA information- https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/food-availability-and-consumption.aspx#.U44CfJRdVor
1) Compared to 1970, Americans consume greater amounts of fruit, vegetables, grains, and meat.
2) The availability/consumption of chicken has increased steadily since the 1940’s, while that of fish has remained staggeringly low.
3) We eat massive amounts of corn and grain-based products
4) Refined sugar is replacing corn sweeteners (HFCS) as the main driver of sugar consumption.
5) The most consumed vegetables in the American diet are potatoes and tomatoes (sorry Brussels Sprouts!).
6) Apples and Oranges top the fruit list.
Graphically, this is what the data shows. However, looking at it in a bit more detail paints a more-complete picture.
1) Fruit juice counts towards fruit consumption. Looking at apple and orange consumption, more than 50% of the intake is via fruit juice. A single serving of apple juice contains 40 grams of sugar. 12 ounces of OJ contains 33 grams of sugar. We are not eating more fruit, we are using more fruit to make products that drive obesity.
2) Chicken is fine, I like chicken. However, I can almost assure you that the increased consumption of chicken is not in the form of organic chicken thighs on the grill. Why do I make this assumption? On the link above, notice that chicken consumption has continued to increase dramatically since 1940. You know what was founded in 1940? MacDonald’s. You know which chicken-based foods have dominated the US economy since then? You betcha- chicken nuggets, chicken sandwiches, and even chicken fries. Coincidence? I think not. To further emphasize this point, in 1889, more than 90% of food was prepared in homes. Today, that figure is down to less than 50%.
3) Real vegetables aren’t subsidized by the government, but corn, wheat and soy are! Start looking at labels in the grocery store and you will be shocked by the number of products that contain these items.
4) From a metabolic standpoint, refined sugars are just as bad as corn-based sugars. The reasoning for this is really just price.
5) Hmmm….tomatoes and potatoes. I wonder what could be contributing to the dominance of these two less than perfect foods? Let’s start with potatoes. According to the USDA data, it is true that potato consumption increased. However, take a look at the figure below (Source- Stephan Guyenet):
We are not eating more whole potatoes. We are eating more potatoes fried in vegetable oil (fat). So we are taking a food very high in carbohydrate (potatoes) and saturating it in fat (vegetable oil). Remember what I said about food producers targeting our innate preferences?
6) I bet you can figure this one out for yourself, but I’ll spare you the time. Yes, our consumption of apples and oranges is high. However, more than 50% of the consumption of these fruits is in the form of fruit juices. Fruit juices most often always are devoid of fiber and contain added sugar. The lack of fiber in addition to the added sugar increases the glycemic response.
We are not eating more fruits and vegetables and our diets are not nearly as healthy as our ancestors. We process everything, eat in excess, and move less throughout the course of the day. Most children are cooped up in classrooms all day and then sit in front of screens when they return home. This is not okay. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone and I realize that obtaining nutritious food is a difficult task in today’s stress driven society. This is why I have provided a brief list of more nutritious choices for foods that are common choices for today’s generation of children.
Healthy Snack Replacements for Children
1) Lunchables- While it won’t be exactly the same, there are some ways to provide your children with a nutrient-dense meal that will satisfy their desire for lunchables. Try adding grass-fed beef jerky sticks with mashed avocado and carrots for dipping.
2) Potato Chips- Ditch the vegetable oil dressed chips and opt for a healthier option such as: homemade kale chips, celery or carrots w/ guacamole, or my personal favorite, homemade sweet potato chips.
3) “Fruit” at the bottom yogurt- Anything with greater than 10 grams of sugar is artificial. Replace these fake yogurts with either cashew yogurt (I like forager project) or a raw, full-fat Greek yogurt. Add in your own fruit for sweetness.
4) On-the-go breakfast options- This is a big one. Steer clear of the pop-tarts, cereals, and cereal bars and opt for hard-boiled eggs, avocado toast on Ezekiel bread, or a protein smoothie with fresh berries and veggies.
I hope this information is helpful and aids you in better understanding the current food culture of the US. My goal is for children to eat healthier to feed their brains and bodies in an effort to optimize their physical and mental performance. If I can be of any assistance to you or your family in accomplishing this mission, please reach out to me directly.