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    Archive for the ‘children’ Category



    Moms to Moms is a 14-page supplement from the publishers of Parents Magazine that offers everything from clutter-busting tips to healthy meal ideas to general childrearing advice.

    The issue I saw today in a dentist’s office certainly caught my attention for a variety of reasons.

    First: the McDonald’s logo on the lower-left corner of the cover.

    Second: among the fourteen pages, there are no less than five full-page advertisements for McDonald’s — six if you count one full-page advertisement for the Ronald McDonald charity.

    Three of these advertisements bear the title “Mommyisms”, and show a fictional mother and daughter (and, in one case, a father and son duo) being playful or enjoying an activity together.

    The first advertisement contains the following statement:

    “Just because it’s her favorite place to eat doesn’t mean it can’t be yours too.”

    Advertisement number two features photographs of chicken nuggets, apple slices with caramel dip, and a soft-serve ice cream cone.  The accompanying text:

    “Tell my husband and son we’re going to McDonald’s, and suddenly I have two kids instead of one.  Its like a fun switch gets flipped and they immediately go into play mode.  I can’t really blame them.”

    The final “mommyism” shows a mother and daughter doing yoga together.

    “What’s not to love?  A Fruit & Walnut Salad plus a Grilled Chicken Snack Wrap for me, and a wholesome Happy Meal for her.  Because quality time is even better with quality food.  And when it comes to eating right, she always follows my lead.”

    The text is accentuated with hearts dotting every lowercase “i”.  All together now: “Awwwww”!

    The remaining two advertisements are even more interesting.

    One features McDonald’s Registered Dietitian, who recommends two different daily menus, one made for children and one tailored to adults.

    For instance, a 505-calorie breakfast composed of one hotcake, one syrup packet, 1% lowfat white milk, Apple Dippers, and low-fat caramel sauce is recommended for children.  There is, of course, no mention of the amount of sodium or added sugars also contained in that meal.

    Finally, there is a spotlight on the Director of Culinary Innovation for McDonald’s corporation.

    One of his featured recipes?  Vanilla-scented pineapple.  Nothing wrong with that, except for the two cups of sugar (32 tablespoons!) and half cup (8 more tablespoons) of vanilla syrup that goes into, strangely enough, sweetening fresh pineapple!

    There is no serving information for the recipe, but even if it is meant for a dozen people, that’s a whopping 3 tablespoons of added sugar (as much as a can of soda) per person!

    PS: I will try to scan each of these advertisements later this week for you to read.

    In the meantime: thoughts?

    I don’t disagree with the notion that certain McDonald’s menu items are healthier than others, but I am greatly disturbed by a magazine supplement aimed at parents that solely advertises the golden arches.


    Where Do You Stand on the Chocolate Milk Controversy?


    Update (1/20/12): My stance on this issue has since solidified. I fully support chocolate milk bans at schools. In short, children consume excessive amounts of sugars, and chocolate milk only contributes to that amount. It is important to consider the “view from 30,000 feet” and realize that fixing school lunch goes well beyond the chocolate milk issue, but this is an easy step we can take to lower added sugar intake in school cafeterias.

    Over the past few days, the nutrition blogosphere has fervently discussed the latest controversy — the “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk” campaign.

    Led by the Milk Processor Education Program and the National Dairy Council, the program aims to “keep chocolate milk on the menu in schools nationwide”, in light of “lunch advocates [who] are calling [to remove chocolate milk from the lunch line, a decision that could] cause more harm than good when it comes to children’s health.”

    The repertoire of widgets, colorful handouts and downloadable documents make it clear that a significant amount of money has been invested in this campaign.

    If that wasn’t enough, there is also a partnership with the National Football League and this slick promotional video that features Registered Dietitians and celeb-moms Angie Harmon and Rebecca Romijn vocalizing their support for keeping chocolate milk in schools.

    So, what to make of this?

    Nutrition professionals across the country have vastly different feelings on the matter.

    One side of the debate is succinctly explained in Dr. Marion Nestle’s top-notch blog, Food Politics.

    Dr. Nestle states:

    “The rationale for the campaign?  If you get rid of chocolate milk, kids won’t drink milk.  You will deprive kids of the nutrients in milk and contribute to the “milk deficit.”   After all, this rationale goes, chocolate milk is better than soda (Oops.  Didn’t we just hear something like this relative to the Smart Choices fiasco?).”

    She also adds that this “it’s all about the children!” campaign is about something else — profit.

    Specifically, Dr. Nestle states, “schools represent sales of 460 million gallons of milk – more than 7% of total milk sales — [and slightly more than] half of flavored milk is sold in schools.”

    Other nutritionists, however, see this campaign as one that takes the important step of “looking at the big picture.”

    While they realize chocolate milk is not an ideal beverage, it is a better alternative than sodas or sugar-laden fruit drinks.  If chocolate milk is the only way a child will drink milk, they argue, then it would be a true shame to have it removed from school cafeterias across the country.

    I am absolutely torn.

    As regular readers of Small Bites know, I have my issues with The Dairy Council.  I find it troubling that, due to their large budget and forceful lobby, they have managed to convince an entire nation that the only way to get calcium in one’s diet is through dairy products.

    Approximately three quarters of African Americans and Asian Americans are lactose intolerant; many of them are not aware that calcium is found in broccoli, bok choy, almonds, and chickpeas.  Due to the Dairy Council’s influence, many educational pamphlets fail to mention non-dairy sources of calcium!

    In fact, this campaign fails to mention that chocolate soymilk offers the exact same nutrients.

    That said, chocolate milk is far from calcium-fortified junk.

    Apart from the popular mineral, chocolate milk also offers potassium, magnesium, vitamin D (fortified), riboflavin, and vitamin B12.  It is very different from a calcium-fortified Kool Aid drink.

    A standard cafeteria-size carton of chocolate milk contains 12 grams (a tablespoon) of added sugar.  That amounts to 48 more calories than non-flavored milk.  I simply can’t muster much emotion over 48 extra calories (assuming, of course, that chocolate milk consumption is kept to one 8-ounce carton a day).

    Similarly, 12 grams of added sugar are not a big deal in a diet that is otherwise not sugar-laden.  Sadly, the average US teenager consumes six tablespoons of sugar on a daily basis!

    So, in that sense, since any decrease in added sugar intake is positive, why not slash an entire tablespoon by getting rid of chocolate milk?  Then again, why not focus on the nutrition-void, sugar-filled junk that is also available at school cafeterias?

    By the way, what has been missing from a lot of the articles and blog posts I have read is this: a chocolate milk ban is absolutely meaningless if, during their lunch period, students can purchase a bottle of Snapple iced tea (added sugar count: 3 tablespoons!) from a vending machine.

    While I very well may eventually take a firm stand either “for” or “against” keeping chocolate milk in schools, I am currently undecided.

    For the time being, I want to open the floor for discussion.

    What do you think?  Is chocolate milk worth worrying about?  Why or why not?


    Fruit! And Yogurt! Well, More Like Sugar and Partially Hydrogenated Oils…

    231363Regular readers of this blog know how much I love to call out healthy-sounding food products that are anything but.

    On the hot seat today?  Kellogg’s Yogos Bits.

    The front of the packaging describes them as “yogurty covered fruit flavored bits.”

    Did you catch those two red flag terms?

    First there’s “yogurty covered”.  Not quite the same as “yogurt covered” (we’ll get to that in a minute).

    Then there’s my personal favorite: “fruit flavored“.  That’s basically marketing speak for “sugar that tastes like [insert name of fruit here]”.

    Let’s have a look at the not-surprisingly-lengthy ingredient list:

    Sugar, coating (sugar, partially hydrogenated palm kernel and palm oil, calcium carbonate, nonfat yogurt powder [cultured whey protein concentrate, cultured skim milk, yogurt cultures [heat-treated after culturing], nonfat milk, reduced mineral whey, color added, soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavor, salt), corn syrup, modified corn starch, apple puree concentrate, contains two percent or less of: water, pectin, citric acid, cornstarch, malic acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), natural and artificial cherry flavor, sodium citrate, color added: carnauba wax, carmine color, Yellow #5 Lake, Red #40, Red #40, Blue #1 Lake

    Wow.  Time for some analysis:

    1. The first ingredient (meaning, the most prominent one) in this product is sugar.

    2. The “yogurty coating” contains more sugar and partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) than actual yogurt!

    3. Even worse, the yogurt cultures have been heat-treated after culturing, rendering their probiotic qualities ineffective.  Remember, you always want to look for live and active cultures!

    4. Carmine color is made by crushing the shells of cochineal beetles.  While there is nothing inherently unhealthy about this, I always like to inform vegetarians and vegans about that factoid.

    5. There isn’t a shred of fruit in this product.  Simply fruit sugars and fruit flavors.

    6. Each pouch of these “bits” weighs 20 grams.  Thirteen of those grams (that’s 65% of the product) come from sugar.

    This product can legally advertise itself as a good source of calcium because it delivers ten percent of the mineral’s daily adequate intake value.  Note, though, that some of it is fortified (sprinkled on during processing) in the yogurt coating!

    For what it’s worth, that same amount of calcium can be intrinsically found in these healthier and less processed foods:

    • A third of a cup of milk (dairy or fortified non-dairy varieties)
    • Half an ounce of Swiss cheese
    • Three quarters of a mozzarella stick
    • A quarter cup of tofu
    • A third of a cup of coked collard greens
    • A third of a cup of almonds

    I would be a lot less displeased if these were described more realistically.  Perhaps something along the lines of “sugar & yogurt covered sugar puffs”?


    In The News: Britain Opens Pandora’s Box

    Flag_of_the_United_Kingdom_3x5Today’s Sydney Morning Herald reports on the latest — and mega controversial — developments in Britain’s public schools: “[elementary] school [students] identified as overweight will automatically be offered a place on a state-funded diet and exercise scheme.”

    Here’s how it will work:

    • At the beginning of this school year, all elementary school students will be weighed
    • Weights will also be recorded at the end of the school year
    • At that time, parents will receive a report that identifies their child(ren) as underweight, healthy, overweight, or very overweight
    • Children who do not fall into the “healthy” category will be offered state-funded weight management services for the summer.  Those identified as ‘very overweight’ will also be referred to pediatricians

    Some parent associations are up in arms, claiming that branding children as overweight will encourage bullying, and that this measure is akin to a dictatorship.  I say — bollocks!

    How, exactly, does this measure encourage bullying?  Results are confidential and only shared with parents, not the student body.

    The unfortunate truth is that if a child is obese, he or she is probably already a target of mean-spirited harassment by classmates.  An official — and confidential — classification is a moot point.

    In fact, teachers could take advantage of this new policy to address body image issues in the classroom.

    In middle school, I was relentlessly made fun of by my gym class for being a horrible basketball and baseball player (whenever I see a baseball glove I twitch and mentally take myself to a “happy place”), but that doesn’t mean I would support the removal of physical education from school curricula.

    As for cries of “dictatorship”?  Unwarranted.  Parents are being offered — not forced to send their children to — weight management services.

    I have spoken to so many parents of overweight children who feel so impotent and helpless and, from what they’ve told me, would be thrilled to receive this type of support and help from schools.

    I think the real issue here is that parents don’t want to hear that their children are overweight because they somehow perceive that as a critique of their parenting skills.  This is not an “identify the bad parents” initiative!


    Enough With This Sneaky Vegetable Nonsense!

    goldfish_crackerAs many of you know, I vehemently oppose the hiding of vegetables in children’s desserts or savory snacks.

    This notion that children will only eat vegetables if they are masked by copious amounts of sugar and fat is misguided in several ways:

    • The inherent message is that “vegetables are not tasty in and of themselves”
    • Desserts and savory snacks with hidden vegetables offer paltry amounts of nutrition (ie: a mere half-cup of spinach — one serving — spread out amongst a DOZEN brownies)
    • It doesn’t allow children to determine, on their own accord, what vegetables they like — and do not like

    There are better alternate solutions to the ever-popular “my child won’t eat ANY vegetables!” dilemma.

    1. Try out different textures.  A child may hate steamed carrots, but love them raw (or vice versa).  If your child enjoys crunchy vegetables, work with that.
    2. Try dressing up vegetables in healthy ways.  For example, offer raw vegetables alongside bean-based dips, drizzle steamed vegetables with toasted sesame oil, or roast various vegetables in olive oil and spices
    3. Research has clearly shown that it takes roughly eight to twelve tries for a child to accept a vegetable (if it will be accepted at all).  When trying out a new vegetable, serve a tiny amount and simply ask your child if he/she would like to try this vegetable that you enjoy.  Regardless of their reaction after swallowing, thank them for trying.  You can try again — remember: TINY amounts — a few weeks later.
    4. Salsa (especially the fresh kind, like Trader Joe’s) is one way to add vegetables to a child’s day
    5. I see a lot of parents fret about daily vegetable consumption.  Step back and look at the bigger picture.  What are the child’s weekly eating patterns?
    6. It is entirely common for young children to go through phases (i.e.: the only vegetables they eat are tomatoes and celery).  They’ll eventually grow out of it.  I don’t see any reason to nag, particularly if the phase involves eating vegetables!

    In any case, this is all build-up to notify you of Pepperidge Farm’s latest: Goldfish “Garden Cheddar” crackers made with dried vegetable powder.

    “The senior vice president and general manager of [the company’s] snacks division says the addition of veggies should be seen by parents as ‘an unexpected bonus,” but I don’t see the big deal.

    Not only are dried vegetable powders nowhere near as nutritious as actual vegetables, but each serving of these new Goldfish crackers contains a third of a serving of vegetables.  In other words, the equivalent to mere eighth of a cup of cooked vegetables.

    My biggest concern is that consumers may view this product as “healthier”, when in reality it is no different from standard Goldfish crackers.

    Thank you to Corey Clark for forwarding me this news item.


    In The News: D-Pressing News

    sunshineDisturbing news courtesy of a recent national study led by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University: “about 70 percent of U.S. children have low levels of vitamin D, which puts them at higher risk for bone and heart disease.”

    Specifically, 9 percent of U.S. children are Vitamin D deficient, while an astonishing 61 percent are vitamin D insufficient (meaning they do not meet required levels, but have not yet develop deficiencies).

    Even more disturbingly, “cases of rickets, a bone disease in infants caused by low vitamin D levels, have also been increasing.”

    Geographic location is a significant obstacle to obtaining optimal vitamin D levels.  Anyone living north of Georgia, for example, is unable to synthesize the vitamin from sunlight between October and April since UVB rays are not poweful enough.

    While dairy products — and their alternatives — are fortified with vitamin D, children do not consume enough of these foods to meet needs.

    Vitamin D is an exception to my “food first, then supplements” rule.

    I highly recommend EVERYONE supplement their diet with at least 800 – 1,000 International Units of Vitamin D every day (note: that figure includes vitamin D from fortified foods).

    Current vitamin D recommendations are outdated; they do not reflect overwhelming evidence from recent clinical research trails that demonstrate substantial health benefits from the higher intakes mentioned above.


    You Ask, I Answer: Diet For a 6-Year-Old

    DietI have a six-year-old niece [who is] pretty heavy.  I don’t know her actual weight, but I would estimate she is 10 or 15 pounds heavier than she should be.

    She’ll be staying with me for a few weeks next month, so I wanted to ask you for good weight-loss strategies for a girl her age.

    — Rebecca (last name withheld)
    (City withheld), FL

    Barring cases of severe obesity, weight loss should never be the goal when dealing with a six-year-old child.

    A better way to approach this — which the American Academy of Pediatrics fully supports — is to help your niece  maintain her current weight.

    This way, as she continues to grow, she will eventually reach a healthier height/weight proportion.

    Remember, too, that diet patterns are half of the equation.

    Physical activity is also important.  Rather than think of what you can take away from her eating, come up with fun activities you can add to her free time that require her to move around.

    The most common mistake I see parents and other relatives make in dealing with overweight children is the banning of foods or blatant “othering” (i.e.:  “your brother can have ice cream for dessert, but you get sliced melon”).

    These actions and comments can do quite a nasty number on the mind of a child, and can often plant the seeds of food phobias, body image disorders, and the idea that food is something to constantly regulate, rather than enjoy.

    Similarly, I strong believe six-year-olds should not be subsisting on Splenda-spiked yogurts, low-carb bars, or diet sodas.

    The best thing to do to prevent further weight gain is to keep an eye on portions and feed them nutrient-dense foods that help keep them full (a snack of celery sticks will not cut it).

    Remember, just because a child is six year old does not mean they have no say in what they eat.

    When your niece visits you next month, for instance, ask her what fruits she likes, and have them available in your kitchen throughout her stay.  This is more effective than, say, buying a huge bag of apples and forcing them on her.

    If oatmeal grosses her out, then make her a smoothie with her favorite fruit and add a little oat bran to it.

    Don’t forget that she is a six-year old.  While I wouldn’t recommend stocking your freezer with various tubs of ice cream, I see no harm in weekly visits to the local ice cream parlor for a treat (please do not coax her into ordering sorbet or low-fat ice cream!)

    PS: I recently had a reader mention that her kids love to snack on the roasted chickpea recipe I shared earlier this year.


    In The News: No Toys For Tots

    ST_PosterFood policy news from Brazil this time, where a federal prosecutor in the city of Sao Paulo has “asked a judge to ban [the advertising and “sale” of toys] at [fast food chains] including McDonald’s and Burger King.”

    The man in question — Marcio Schusterschitz (I’ll take “unfortunate last names for $1000, Alex”) — bases his case on the fact that “fast-food toy promotions encourage children to buy high-fat meals through “the abusive creation of emotional associations” that turn them into life-long eaters of high-fat foods.”

    The wording is quite strong, but I agree with the basic idea.

    I have noticed that many media outlets are framing this in an appalling “where in the world is THIS guy getting his ideas from?” framework, but keep in mind that Brazil’s Consumer Defense Code explicitly prohibits advertising aimed at children that “”takes advantage of the deficiency in judgment and experience of the child.”

    As a child, I was never into fast food toys (the food in itself was enticing enough to me), but I remember many of my peers and classmates often begging their parents to take them to a fast food restaurant for the sole purpose of collecting all the toys that were available — for a limited time, of course — as part of the children’s “combo meal.”

    We’ll soon find out if the judge in question wants to consider the case.  I certainly hope he does.

    PS: Yes, I am aware that these toys can be bought separately, but why do fast food chains even HAVE toys to offer?  And, really, for all the fuss children make about these toys, they usually break — or are forgotten about — 24 hours later.


    In The News: All in the Family

    family-guy-745805Today’s New York Times shares the results of a study published in the Journal of Social Science & Medicine which concluded that children’s diets differentiate from those of their parents, even more so as children grow older.


    When I read the study (which I linked to above) and looked at Table 2 –which shows consumption of a variety of nutrients and food groups among parents and children — I saw quite similar dietary patterns.

    Parents consumed an average of 25.9 grams of saturated fat a day; children consumed 26.0 grams.

    Similarly, while children consumed an average of 3,154 milligrams of sodium on a daily basis, their parents’ average intake clocked in at 3,425 milligrams.

    When it comes to fiber, parents consumed an average of 15.7 grams, while the value for children was 13.2 grams.  In my mind, a two gram difference is insignificant.

    I find the researchers’ conclusions — that parents’ dietary intakes have little effect on their children — absurd.

    If anything, what we are seeing here is that parents AND children are consuming unhealthy diets: high in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars, and low in fiber.

    I also find The New York Times’ reporting of this study rather sloppy.  Consider the first sentence in their article:

    “Parents may try to set an example by eating a healthy diet themselves, but a new study has found that their children are not paying attention.”

    Well, the study didn’t exactly find that.  Additionally, this study did not focus on — or explore — the issue of parents’ healthy diets with their children’s eating habits.

    The study also makes absolutely no mention of concepts I consider vital in these kinds of studies:

    • On average, how many meals did these families eat together?
    • Did children take packed lunches from home or eat school food?
    • How many family meals were cooked at home, as opposed to takeout or at restaurants?

    The study authors conclude that “parents don’t play as large a role as people have thought in their children’s diet.”

    I completely disagree.  While children’s eating habits outside the home are harder to influence, parents can certainly decide  what is stocked in their pantry, refrigerator, and freezer, as well as what is served during family meals.


    Good Morning, Unnecessary Products!

    productshotBehold CapriSun’s latest venture — CapriSun Sunrise.

    According to its advertisements, this juice drink blend “adds a little sunshine to breakfast” by providing children with calcium and Vitamin C in a “fun-for-them, no-fuss-for-you pouch.”

    Sigh.  This quite possibly deserves the “most unnecessary product award.”

    From a nutrition label and ingredient list standpoint, there is absolutely no difference between CapriSun Sunrise and regular CapriSun.  Water and sugar are the first two ingredients, followed by juice concentrates (more nutrition-void sugar!)  The highly-advertised vitamins and minerals are simply tacked on during processing.

    THIS is supposed to reassure parents that their children are starting off the morning nutritiously?  They might as well serve their children a glass of sugar water a with a chewable multivitamin on the side.

    Apparently, consumers are buying into the notion that certain products are strictly for the morning hours, despite being identical to their “any time of day” counterparts.  Luna Bars’ Sunrise bars (released in 2007) have sold well, and 2006’s Gatorade A.M. has managed to stay afloat in the sports drink arena.

    According to CapriSun, their Sunrise line “makes Mom sense.”  I think it’s NONsense.


    Speaking With…: Brian Wansink

    This past Friday, Cornell University John Dyson Professor of Consumer Behavior and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Laboratory Dr. Brian Wansink stopped by New York University after being tapped as the second featured speaker of a new lecture series on nutrition and chronic disease.

    Taking off from his bestseller Mindless Eating, the talk was appropriately titled, “How To Turn Mindless Eating Into Healthy Eating.”

    With those prevously mentioned credentials, you might picture a stiff, “all business” type who solves complex equations in his head while half-listening to you.

    Dr. Wansink, however, is reminiscent of the cool high school math teacher who wanted you to learn — and have fun while doing so. His research explanations are peppered with personal anecdotes, comedy, and facial expressions that sometimes rival those of Jim Carrey.

    A few hours before his afternoon presentation, I sat down with Dr. Wansink for a one-on-one interview.

    If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Wansink’s work, please click here to familiarize yourself with his research before reading the interview.

    I get such a kick out of all your publicity shots for Mindless Eating [NOTE: see accompanying picture]. They’re great! Have they all been photographers’ ideas?

    Ha! Thanks. Yeah, I’ve had some really creative photographers who set up these elaborate shoots. Some of those popcorn shots literally took twelve hours, from setup to cleanup. There was a LOT of popcorn all over the floor at the end that had to be cleaned up (laughs).

    So, I recently read that all of this research started as a result of you wanting people in the United States to eat more vegetables.

    That’s right.

    How did you go from that to your current line of research?

    Yeah, before I started my dissertation [in the late 80s], I wanted to know: “why do you finish your vegetables sometimes and other times you leave them on your plate?”. “Why are you hungry for them one night and not the next?” That then evolved into the idea of environmental factors that affect our overall eating patterns. It’s a lot more complex than people think because so many of our eating behaviors are automatic. This is all about getting below that surface. One of my first research studies had to do with family serving behavior. We had people come in, eat, and then answer questions about what they ate.

    Then, we showed them video footage of their meal. It is amazing how many people flat out deny, or are not aware of, their eating behavior. You’ll say to someone, “you had three servings of peas.” They’ll tell you, “No, I only had one!” You feel like saying, “Well, unless you have an evil twin…”

    It’s not until you show them the videotape that they change their mind. I once had a woman cry when she saw herself eating on camera! My research considers three angles. Not only what people are eating and how much of it, but also with what frequency.

    How did all that research turn into Mindless Eating?

    In 2004, I was in France and thought to myself, “I’d like to write a book, but I don’t know if I want it to be academic or pop.”

    That year, Bonnie Liebman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest interviewed me for their Nutrition Action newsletter, and suddenly a lot of requests for book deal started coming in. Most of them were e-mails and, I don’t know, nothing really stood out. Then I got a letter — an actual letter! — from Bantam Dell Books. One of the things I liked about them is that, as they told me, they are in the business of creating “real books that people read.”

    Interesting you say that, because I think that’s definitely one of the factors behind the popularity of Mindless Eating. It is relatable for and interesting to the average consumer.

    So at this point, it’s been a few years since the book came out. I was wondering about recent developments. For example, have you conducted any research on the effects of calorie postings in fast food restaurants?

    Oh yeah, I was involved in a VERY well-done study with Carnegie Mellon in regards to calorie labeling. We looked at McDonald’s, Subway, and Starbucks in terms of what consumers were buying before and after calories went up. And, you know what? The results were indeterminate. They were all over the board. Some people consumed fewer calories, others didn’t. I would actually be suspicious of anyone who told you they have seen a dramatic effect as a result of calorie labeling.

    That strikes me as really odd. What are your theories regarding the results of that study?

    There’s a few things to consider. First of all, when it comes to weight loss, a lot of people think: Yeah, I wouldn’t mind losing ten pounds, but I don’t want to change a thing.” Then there’s reactance, which is a psychological term. It’s basically resistance. Reactance is at play when you’re in your car and the person behind you honks so you pull away more slowly than you would otherwise.

    (Laughs) Or when you know someone at a restaurant is waiting for your table, so you sit there and take a little longer.

    Yeah. So I think, in a way, some people are seeing these calories and thinking, “Oh yeah? Well, you’re not going to tell ME what to eat!” Something similar happened in a study I did with Cornell. So, Cornell has a huge dining hall that services about 1100 people at one time. I wanted to see what effect going tray-less would have. I thought it would have two positive effects — it would result in reduced waste and reduced calories.

    The idea being that people couldn’t pile everything on at once but instead had to get up from their table each time they wanted more food?

    Yeah, exactly. Well, the results came in, and that night there was roughly 30 percent MORE plate waste! I think it comes back to that idea of reactance, where people saw this and thought, “Fine, I won’t use a tray, but I’m not going to eat less.” “font-style:italic;”>But that’s not to say that I think calorie labeling isn’t useful. Let me tell you something. The other day I went to Sbarro and saw that the slice of pizza I wanted was 787 calories. Aaaaaaaah!! So I think these calorie postings are going to serve as incentives for these food companies to say, “Alright, wait a minute, I want to turn that 787 into 690.” I think it’s going to nudge companies to drop the numbers, and that’s what will, in turn, affect consumers.

    Speaking of consumers, you recently finished your one-year post with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion working on the Dietary Gudelines. How did that go?

    Oh, it was great! I thought I was on a mission from God! My last day was January 20, when the new president took office. I was literally sending e-mails at 11:59 PM on January 19. I was still e-mailing at 12:05 AM on January 20, and I remember thinking “Wow, they didn’t shut off my inbox!” Then I got up to grab something to eat, and about ten minutes later I came back and I no longer had access.

    Any sneak peeks as to possible changes we may expect in the next round of Dietary Guidelines?

    I was involved with the selection of the 13 Dietary Guidelines committee members, and 11 of them have a behavioral focus. They operate where the rubber meets the road. That’s important, because they take pages upon pages of data and transform it into information for the masses that can be summarized in just a few sentences.

    So to wrap up, I’m interested in hearing about research you are in the process of conducting now.

    Oh yeah, sure. Well, we’re looking at what happens to people’s eating behaviors when they sit next to someone who has a much higher BMI than they do. We are also doing a study where we have someone wearing a fat suit and going through one side of a buffet very slowly, serving themselves a lot of food. Everyone on the other side of the salad bar takes a much lower amount of food compared to when that person is going through the salad bar without the fat suit on. It’s the whole concept of mimicking the attractive person. It’s terrible, because weight is the last acceptable prejudice in our society and it can really be crippling to a person’s self-esteem.

    Lately, the concept of “nature vs. nurture” has become central to the issue of childhood obesity. Do you have any thoughts on that from a behavioral standpoint?

    Well, we conducted a study with 4 year olds. We gave all the kids a questionnaire to take home. The point of the questionnaire was to determine to what extent parents forced their kids to eat everything that was on their plate. Of course, we disguised those questions among lots of filler like “what is your favorite TV show?”

    “What color are your curtains?”, etc.

    (Laughs) Exactly. So the parents, on a scale of one to nine, had to rate just how heavily they enforced “the clean plate club” at home. So, you know, nine was “my kids HAVE to finish everything on their plate or there is some kind of consequence” and one was “Ah, if they eat, they eat. If they don’t, they don’t.” We discovered that the children whose parents insisted they finish everything on their plate served themselves approximately 40 percent more cereal in our study.

    Wow! And based on what you talk about in Mindless Eating… the idea that, once food is in front of us, it is very easy to eat it all, that’s a significant finding.

    Yeah, the thinking is that children who are forced to clean their plate feel like the have no control when it comes to food, so they find ways to reassert their control and independence.

    Well, it looks like we’ve actually gone over time, but this has been fascinating. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you!

    Oh, absolutely. Thank you and best of luck with everything.

    Many thanks to Dr. Wansink for his time!


    Survey Results: Make Room For Spongebob

    The latest Small Bites survey asked visitors if they supported the use of popular cartoon characters to advertise fruit and vegetable products like “baby carrots” and frozen spinach to children.

    Sixty-three percent of respondents supported that form of advertising, eight percent did not, and the remaining twenty-seven percent did not have a strong opinion either way.

    I strongly favor that sort of advertising.

    Many nutrition advocates do not, claiming it confuses children to see Spongebob on baby carrots as well as a box of sugary fruit snacks.

    My main concern with that argument is that it attempts to view the world through the eyes of a child who has the marketing awareness of an adult.

    Six-year-olds are not aware of nutrition. They don’t understand the difference in nutrients between a fruit snack and a real fruit. Seeing their favorite cartoon character on different products doesn’t confuse them — it simply draws their eyes and attention to them!

    In my opinion, too many nutrition advocates make the crucial mistake of forgetting that they, too, can implement the same tactics used by food companies.

    Getting children interested in eating healthier food by simply branding it with cartoon characters is certainly far from utopian, but it’s a significant step forward we need to pursue.


    In The News: Kidney Believe It?

    This article in The San Francisco Chronicle — courtesy of the Associated Press — sheds light on a disturbing trend among children: higher incidences of kidney stones.

    “At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, for example, the number of children treated for kidney stones since 2005 has climbed from about 10 a year to five patients a week now, said Dr. Pasquale Casale.”

    Although pediatric kidney stones are often attached to inborn metabolic defects, the majority of these new cases involve children who test negative for such disorders.

    One very likely culprit? Processed diets (specifically the high levels of sodium they contribute) within the context of low fluid intake.

    This demonstrates, as I have been saying for slightly over a year now, that sodium is well on its way to becoming the next “hot button” ingredient (following in the footsteps of trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, whole grains, and Omega-3 fatty acids).

    Expect even more companies to offer low-sodium varieties of products — particularly ones aimed at children.

    The sugar lobbyists, I’m sure, are popping a bottle of champagne as I type these words!


    In The News: In The Zone

    Today’s New York Times reports the conclusion of an eight-year-long study of millions of schoolchildren completed by economists at the University of California and Columbia University: “ninth graders whose schools are within a block of a fast-food outlet are more likely to be obese than students whose schools are a quarter of a mile or more away.”

    This study is particularly significant since it adjusted for variables like income, education, and race, thereby making it easier to accurately pinpoint the effect of fast food restaurant proximity to weight.

    More specifically, “obesity rates were 5 percent higher among the ninth graders whose schools were within one-tenth of a mile of a pizza, burger or other popular fast-food outlet, compared with students attending schools farther away from fast-food stores.”

    In a not-at-all surprising move, the National Restaurant Association is shrugging this off since “it did not take individual diet and exercise into account.” The argument falls rather flat when you consider that the location of these fast food restaurants clearly had an effect on students’ diets.

    I have long been a supporter of zoning laws regarding fast food restaurants and schools, and this only strengthens my belief.


    Where Do I Begin?

    The folks at ConAgra appear to be quite proud of their Kid Cuisine products.

    Aimed at elementary school students, these ready-to-eat lunches are — believe it or not — advertised as healthy items.

    Let’s analyze one variety. How about the Dip & Dunk Toasted Ravioli?

    The initial descriptive sentence says it all: “This meal features breaded real-cheese ravioli…”

    Beside the slightly disturbing fact that we have to be assured this product contains “real” cheese (as opposed to… cheez?), I find the breading of ravioli rather odd — and unnecessary.

    The nutrition label displays 9 grams of fiber (good!) and one tenth of the daily potassium requirement (not bad!), but also a third of a day’s worth of sodium (yikes!) and 18 grams — 4 and a half teaspoons’ worth — of sugar.

    Oddly enough, Conagra advertises this product as containing 20 percent of MyPyramid’s suggested daily servings of grains. How this is a selling point beats me; no one in this country has any problem getting their recommended servings of that food group!

    The ingredient list, not surprisingly, is very long (the cheese ravioli, for instance, contain a garlic puree made with high fructose corn syrup) and includes one of my pet peeves: unnecessary sweetening.

    It turns out the side of corn isn’t simply corn kernels. Nope, it’s corn with water and sugar.

    Sugar? Added to corn?

    Then there’s the “fruit shaped and fruit flavored” snacks. In other words, it looks like a fruit and tastes like a fruit, but it’s just sugar.

    This product could easily be tweaked to provide similar flavors with a superior nutrition profile. My suggestions:

    * Replace the breaded ravioli with baked, 100% whole grain cheese-and-broccoli bites.

    * Offer corn kernels in their naturally sweet state.

    * Replace the fruit snacks with unpeeled apple slices.

    Those three changes could slash the sugar content approximately by half and lower the sodium by roughly 150 milligrams.

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