Archive for Saturday, February 10, 2001

Junk food theory and practice

February 10, 2001


It's a funny thing to feel guilty about, but there it is: I wish I had been less uptight about junk food when my kids were little.

Oh, sure, there are powerful reasons to avoid having junk around the house. For one thing, it's everywhere else.

Junk food is to children's advertising what sex is to advertising for adults. Pervasive pitches persuade them life's no fun without a bowl of chips, a cache of chocolate bars and a soda the size of Rhode Island. Junk food's the menu at any children's gathering. It's what to get at a ballgame or a movie. As for dinner out, what's every child's dream menu? Maybe pizza. But probably the all-American feast: a burger, fries and a soda.

Almost every holiday demands the stuff. Halloween means bottomless bags of every candy known to man or goblin. Easter baskets bring it bedside. Valentine's Day has its candy hearts and chocolates; Christmas, its candy canes and cookies. Not to mention birthday cakes and ice cream.

Nowadays we even ply kids with junk food in school. Our money-starved schools round out their budgets with ill-gotten gains from candy machines, soda machines and pizza sales. (Not even to take on the question of school-lunch contents.)

All this, as we keep reading and hearing, has a ghastly effect on American kids' diets, producing at its worst a terrible blend of malnourishment and obesity.

Yet junk food is ineradicably enshrined in American life. The new book "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" notes that 96 percent of American schoolchildren can identify Ronald McDonald. We spend more on fast food, says author Eric Schlosser, than on higher education, personal computers, computer software or new cars. And we spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos and recorded music combined.

So what loving parent would not stand up against this scourge and banish junk food from the home? Well, that's what I thought. That's what I did. And now I regret it.

The regret crept into my consciousness as I began to see articles about how depriving a kid of any kind of food early on will mess with the mechanism of normal eating for life. Take a recent "Personal Health" column in The New York Times, in which Jane Brody tells us that parental control efforts will only backfire.

The child, writes Brody, "will covet the very foods her mother forbade or used as bribes, and she may reject the more nutritious fare her mother tried to force her to eat." In the words of Penn State's Dr. Leann Birch, who is what we used to call a home economist, "Restricting access to palatable snack foods prompts kids to overeat those foods."

Brody notes that she did not tell her own children that "they could not have candy, cookies, chips, soda or ice cream. I simply did not keep these temptations in the house." Instead, she had "fresh fruit, a fruit salad, carrots and celery sticks with a low-fat dip ... skim milk, 100 percent fruit juices and water." She gave her kids money to buy candy once a week, "but after a while they chose to buy a knish instead."

Well, I made all those good things available in my kitchen, too, and banned the bad stuff. But this didn't make my kids want knishes instead of candy. What it made them do was go to other people's houses and wolf down Oreos and Diet Coke. My kids' friends' mothers told me this at the time. Now I hear it from my kids themselves part of a recurring rant about the deprivation our oh-so-virtuous pantry brought upon them.

I like to believe they're healthier for the fastidiously balanced sack lunches we packed, the milk they drank even when out to dinner, the Ruffles and Mars bars that weren't around. But you'd never know it from hearing them talk of the cravings they'll always struggle with, the appetite alterations we bequeathed them, through our holier-than-others eating habits.

Those protestations have pretty well sealed my regret: We did it wrong. What I don't know is how you do it right. One must have good wholesome foods around, of course. But also "palatable snack foods" to avoid deprivation. But no bribing kids by holding back "palatable snack foods" while they eat the good wholesome stuff.

How the dickens can all this work with real children? I'm sure my kids will be determined to find out, with their kids, and I'll be watching.

I just hope I can keep my mouth shut.

Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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