Monday, May 19, 2008

Childhood Obesity: Help Parents With Portion Sizes

The Washington Post yesterday launched a five-part series on childhood obesity in America. Although the Curmudgeon kids are skinny, this is an issue of interest to us as we see so many young children whose future is already being robbed by struggles with weight and obesity, including many of the kids in our soccer programs.

The Post series is important, but like many debates about obesity and its causes, it mixes together a lot of disparate information, much of which is mere noise. A good deal of the confusion comes from advice about what constitutes good nutrition, versus what will keep kids from getting fat.

Our youngest child undoubtedly has poor nutrition in his diet. He avoids vegetables and has a huge sweet-tooth. But he is small for his age, and skinny. That may in part be due to the struggle to get enough protein in him. But his diet is not going to make him fat, because he eats very little of anything. He's also incredibly physically active.

The point is, you can have a bad diet--nutritionally--without getting fat. Conversely, you can have good nutrition and still be overweight.

The weight issue is a function of how MUCH one eats. As the Post notes today, the difference between what an average person consumes each day and what is burned off by physical activity is about 100 calories. Doesn't sound like much, but over a year that's 36,500 calories, or about 18 days worth of excess food for an adult woman! (Adult women consume approximately 2000 calories per day on average.)

For many who are obese, that calorie gap is actually a good deal higher, too.

In today's article, the Post explored the government's failure to do much about the childhood obesity epidemic. But really, most of the potential actions mentioned in the Post wouldn't accomplish any reduction in obesity. More nutritional labelling, or eliminating trans-fats, or restricting soda machines in schools--none gets at the root problem of people simply eating too much.

What would help? We don't have all the answers, but parents desperately need some easy to use, practical guides to how much food their children should be eating, and they need help getting servings of the proper portion size.

Let's take McDonald's, ubiquitously blamed (for good reason) for America's obesity epidemic. There's no reason you couldn't take your child to McDonald's and get a reasonably sized meal that the kid would like. But the way Mickie-D's is set up, it ain't easy.

For a typical 10-year-old boy, a basic McD's single cheeseburger, with a SMALL packet of fries and a 10 oz. soda would be fine. Sure, it's nice to fantasize about having the child eat something more nutritious, with maybe fruit juice and some real vegetables, but let's start by getting the portion right and then work on the content. The government, and nutritionists, doctors, public health experts, etc., would do parents a huge favor by telling them that such a meal would be okay, instead of saying "don't eat fast food." In other words, the single cheeseburger with a few fries is MUCH better than the "value" meal with Big Mac, "medium" fries and 20 oz. drink pictured above.

Then we'd also have to get McDonald's to make that meal easily available to parents at a price competitive with their larger, calorie-packed meals. Again, if the government were in a position to identify what WOULD be appropriate for McD's (and other fast food outlets) to give a kid as a meal, then maybe they'd comply, or could be embarassed into doing the right thing.

Perhaps the government could also develop a standard system for labelling portions, with an attractive seal of approval for those approved for kids of a certain age.

It would also help to have labels that say something is NOT approved for kids of a certain age. We'd love to see labels on ALL packaged drinks--not just sodas (juice has a lot of calories too)--with more than 10 ounces saying they are inappropriate for children. Other packaged foods could earn similar labels.

You'd be surprised how many parents think they are giving their kids the right-sized portion when they aren't, just out of ignorance. (At our local Wendy's, the "small" combo meal comes with a 16 ounce drink and what used to be called a "large" fries; a lot of parents probably think that looks okay compared to the even bigger other options.)

There are probably other ways to give parents more practical advice on HOW MUCH food is appropriate for their children. We should look for opportunities to help.


Scott P. Shaffer said...

Pink ribbons identify the fight against breast cancer. Yellow bracelets symbolize cancer research fundraising.

Fighting childhood obesity now has its own unique symbol for awareness and fundraising, the Do Tag.

Monkee Do's cute monkee on a shoe tag sends the right message of "DO"ing to kids and adults. It also establishes an identifiable symbol for childhood obesity fundraising and awareness.

To see the foundations participating in the Do Tag Project, please visit

MonkeyGirl said...

I totally agree that the portion sizes in America have gotten out of control, and are a definite cause of obesity in our country. But I really struggle with this issue when it comes to fast food companies because I wonder where the responsibility lies? We could become a labeled-to-death society, where everything we consume carries a warning. But how effective would that really be (those warning labels don't seem to deter too many smokers). It's unfortunate that fast food is less expensive than fresh veggies and fruit. When a parent - especially one who falls into a lower socio-economic bracket - has to make food choices, the less expensive option is probably going to win. And that means MickyD's and larger, more fatty, portions.

We have always been a culture of overconsumption - we've been lucky to be born in a land that has plentiful natural resources, lots of space, and lots of freedom that has precipitated this culture. And now it has permeated our eating habits. I think we both agree that the answer to the obesity issue is education - but how we educate the masses and change this culture is the hard part. You could educate kids in the classroom, but they aren't the ones going out and buying the food. Ultimately, parents need to be educated, and how do you get that information to them, when they are juggling a job, kids, and all the other pressures of life?

This is definitely a tough issue - and one that government, educators, and the private sector have to make together.

X Curmudgeon said...

We always like to hear from you, Monkey Girl.

Recent statistics show that one in four Americans eats fast food at least ONCE A DAY. Given that, it is imperative for fast food companies to give their customers better information on what is an appropriate portion size.

It's not just the fault of McD's and it's brethren, however. Much of the problem comes from those who are already obese, who demand large portions and will go elsewhere if they don't get them. We're not saying McD's can't offer large portions to those who want them--we think you should have the freedom to eat yourself to death. But most people don't know how much is the right amount for themselves, and it is there that the government and food service industry could help out considerably.

Heck, even the government's "food pyramid" is problemmatic. For example, it recommends "6-11 servings" of bread, cereal, rice and pasta. Yet, if you ate 11 bowls of cereal a day, you'd be seriously overeating! You have to get to the fine print to realize a "serving" is one slice of bread, or one cup of cereal. So the government could be a lot clearer, too.

Sara said...

If we don't do something about the obesity problem our kids are going to be in trouble and the statistics are saying that if you don't do something our kids could have a shorter life span then their parents.

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I lost 48 pounds by documenting my weekly diet and exercise routine with a goal sheet. It is was a life saving I was able to plan in advance my diet and exercise routine and it helped me to stay on track and also to see what my biggest challenges were. I became a member of and received a goal sheet there are also a lot of weight loss tips and tools the support my weight loss goals. So I need to lose 31 more pounds but I am on my way.