Where Kids Eat Impacts Their Energy Intake

Public domain picture of a full dinner place settingAt least that’s what a new study by Jennifer M Poti and Barry M Popkin, PhD seems to indicate.  The study appears in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and its findings made our local news on July 25.  According to the article’s abstract:

“… Increased energy intake (+179 kcal/day) by children from 1977-2006 was associated with a major increase in energy eaten away from home (+255 kcal/day).  The percentage of daily energy eaten away from home increased from 23.4% to 33.9% from 1977-2006 …”

In the abstract’s conclusion, the article goes on to say:

“… Eating location and food source significantly influence daily energy intake for children.  Foods prepared away from home including fast food eaten at home and store-prepared food eaten away from home, are fueling the increase in total energy intake.  However, further research using alternate data sources is necessary to verify that store-bought foods eaten away from home are increasingly store-prepared …”

Now, the way I read the text of the study, the researchers seem to be concluding that today’s obesity epidemic in America has everything to do with where a child eats his food and where that food was prepared.  I don’t buy it!

First of all, we have to talk about the standard by which “obesity” is measured.  Today, the international standard is the body mass index (BMI), and that standard wasn’t adopted until the 1980s.  The use of that standard had an immediate impact on the classification of a person’s weight.  People who were once considered healthy were now considered overweight or obese.  I’m not sure that this change in the way data was reported was addressed when analyzing data for the research.

Let’s also consider something else that happened in the 1980s.  We became a society of folks who started to worship transfat.  Margarine was supposed to be healthy; Crisco was supposed to be better than tallow or lard.  But as we started eating this stuff that was supposed to be “healthy” we seemed to get much unhealthier.

And if you were born in the ’70s or earlier, think back to your school years for a moment.  How often did you eat a “school lunch”? How often did you ride in a car or bus to school? How much time did you spend inside playing video games or using a computer?

I was born in 1976, and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I walked about .7 miles to school, I ate a lunch that I brought in a lunch box, I walked from school to the babysitter’s house, and I played outside.  When Mom came to pick us up from the babysitter’s, we went home, ate supper, and played some more.  My breakfasts didn’t come from a vending machine or snack cart at school, and we did watch cartoons, but it was only on Saturday mornings.

Not only were we more active back then, but I remember that if you didn’t have a garden, you were in the minority.  If I did eat a “school lunch”, the only flavored milk was chocolate, and the only extra item that you could buy was an ice cream bar or popcicle at lunch recess.  There wasn’t pop at school, we couldn’t buy two or 3 trays, and we didn’t have the snack items available to us that are flashed in my kids’ faces today.

Another important factor in my growing up, I think, was the fact that Mom cooked our food for us.  That’s not to say that we never went out to eat, but it was a treat that happened infrequently because your money could go much further at the store than at McDonald’s.  Our drink choices at home were limited too.  There was milk and water, and sometimes there was juice or Tang, but most of the time, we drank water when we were thirsty.  I remember Dad liking his Pepsi and Mom liking her 7UP, but I don’t recall much pop in the house at all.  Sometimes we’d get to share (back when pop came in 16oz glass bottles), and that was a treat that we always loved.

Now, I know my kids would think I’m talking like an old person here, “When I was your age, we had to walk 3 miles, uphill, both ways, in 3 feet of snow…”, but things really were that different.

Undoubtedly, where a child gets his or her food impacts health.  I know it did for me.  I wasn’t as active as other kids when I was little because 1) I was always running into something I didn’t see and getting hurt and 2) the games kids liked to play couldn’t really include someone who couldn’t see.  (Everyone always wanted to play baseball, kickball, tether ball — something that ended in “ball” — and it always ended badly for me.) This meant I was already fat by the time I was in the 3rd grade.  When I went away to the Indiana School for the Blind in 5th grade though, every one of my meals was a “school lunch”.  Very little of the food was made fresh foods, and I can’t even imagine what the ingredient labels must have looked like on some of those cans that glopped out the feast of the day.  I can’t help but wonder what I would have weighed by the time I was a freshman in high school had I continued to eat the majority of my meals made-from-scratch and home-cooked.

The issue of obesity isn’t something that can whittled down to one magic bullet answer.  It’s amazingly complicated, and until we start to address the issue with some personal accountability, some education, and some changes to the way food is produced in this country, we’re not going to make any headway.  Us taking some responsibility and getting ourselves and our children healthy is one of the most important things we can do to support the journey to freedom, and I know it’s hard.  (I know because I haven’t succeeded long-term thus far, but I’ve never stopped trying.)

Let’s make a difference, and let’s claim liberty while we’re doing it!

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