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Junk Food and Irate Parents

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On a town-wide internet forum, a polite but passionate battle brewed some time ago, sparked by a mom who posted her disdain that our local middle school sells ‘junk’ like Pop-Tarts. The neighborhood fairly crackled with responses.

The appalled anti-sweets mom began the volley with, “Yes, I’m that mom that brings oranges as a snack instead of cupcakes. BORING, MOM! Well, I’m sorry but to me it’s not a popularity contest, it’s about our kids health.”

She doesn’t even approve of juice, dinging the Izze drink that one responder noted is only juice plus 10% water. The complainant, however, feels “Sugar is sugar. If you want some orange juice, eat an orange. It’s not as good for you without the rest of the fruit.”

Then a registered dietitian with a doctorate in human nutrition replied that no food is inherently bad when integrated into a well-balanced diet, and consumed in moderation. She noted that yes, obesity has complicated causes, including genetics, exercise, other behaviors as well as diet–but it’s not a problem in our well-educated community.

She continued that many factors enter into a school’s decision of what to offer, including cost and convenience. Of Pop-Tarts she says, “if you read the ingredients you’ll see stuff that is good for us and stuff that the popular press has vilified without sufficient scientific evidence to support that vilification.”

But many well-meaning parents seem to have a visceral hatred for sugar. Offer children sugar, it seems, and children will take it, even when warned, educated and regulated by their folks about “good choices.” It’s considered wrong to offer kids “bad choices” lest kids don’t listen to the warning, educating and regulating they hear.

The debate got so heated that a fed-up reader crassly asked, “Are we now bitching about chocolate milk? I’ve decided to cut off my cable TV, because who needs ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ when I’ve got the real housewives here!”

In this lovely town where I am fortunate to live, before dawn the sidewalks thump with footfalls of runners in well-reviewed shoes, lighting their paths with headlamps. Bootcamp classes are full. Parks have tennis courts; clubs offer weight machines and television-topped treadmills. Kids engage in all sorts of sports–swim team, soccer, Little League, lacrosse.

So the brouhaha about Pop Tarts, with parents arguing whether it is their or the school’s responsibility to ensure that children consume only healthy food during the day, seems a bit misplaced. On the other hand, every parent wants his child eating a healthy diet. It’s the luckier parents who seem to care the loudest.

But maybe this noisy discontent is beneficial. Certainly food choice is an important topic. Sooner or later, at least by high school, children will spend money on snacks without mom’s protection. There will be Pop-Tarts. There will be junk food–to buy, avoid or ignore.

As a kid, in my family, dinners were home-made “square meals” with meat, salad, starch. I never heard the term “unhealthy choices”–largely because convenience food was more expensive than mom-cooked food. We drank (whole) milk or water and never juice, soda or chocolate milk. The usual dessert was fruit. I’d ask, “what’s for ‘dez’?” and my mom replied “fruit” to my predicable groan. But that was the choice–fruit or nothing. We did not eat ice cream or cake or candy; it just wasn’t there.

When I entered middle school, I was astonished to see a snack corner selling Jujubes, Sno-Caps, Good and Plenty, Hershey Bars. Things I’d only seen at movie theaters in glass cases. Did I find them irresistible? They seemed like a waste of money, of which I had very little.

In the morning break, which was called “Nutrition,” you could get a hunk of bread slathered in garlic butter; fifteen cents bought a spiral cinnamon bun sticky with sugar, the size of a baseball glove. These “bad choices” never beckoned because no one labeled them, so I just didn’t care.

When I got to high school, I became friends with a girl whose (overweight) parents bought “babka” at the local bakery. That was a gooey, rich confection that you could peel apart in layers of moist chocolate. This friend had soda in her refrigerator. She had potato chips in the pantry. All these were foods I’d seldom seen, much less had easily available.

Did I eat them when I was sleeping over at my friend’s house? A little, but they never really attracted me. I don’t like carbonation. I loved babka but the sicky-sweet of more than one piece tasted yukky.

What that suggests is that each home has an eating culture that creates habits and comfort zones. All these worried parents in my town reveal a lack of confidence in their own influence as molders of their children and more importantly, as good examples.

Now, my adult children keep kosher and vegetarian, neither of which protects from “bad choices” or an unbalanced diet. But eating shellfish, just like munching candy during my youth, is just “not something we do.”

For many years, I’ve taught workshops about how naturally thin people eat. It’s simple: eat when you’re hungry, listen to your body and get exactly what you want, enjoy it to the fullest, and stop when satisfied.

If we teach our kids to ignore their body’s messages and to consider candy and soda and Pop Tarts forbidden, then we increase their allure. Obesity became a severe problem not because cheap junk food proliferated, as much as the fact that people bought it, over-riding their bodies’ signals. Of course, the problem of obesity is complex, but fostering a culture of honest eating–that is, an “eat to live,” not “live to eat” mindset–lets individuals respond to their own bodies’ needs rather than rely on some nutritionist, diet guru or finger-wagging neighbor.


Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and author of seven books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. She can be seen in her Seattle suburb walking (and picking up litter) with her husband, author and radio host Michael Medved, and at least some of their three children and four toddler grandchildren. Reach her at DianeMedved.com.

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