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Eating as Recreation, Food as Fun

October 18, 2010

Fat Luigi

When something hits a nerve, there’s no mistaking it. Friday’s post “When There is Nothing to Do But Eat,” concerning one of the contributing factors to the childhood obesity epidemic, definitely brought forth a flood of comments, ranging from pure nostalgia to well-reasoned arguments. Many thanks to everybody for contributing to this topic! By the way, you made Childhood Obesity News the third fastest-growing WordPress blog. And thanks, Joy the Editorial Czar, for putting us on the front page. (Some czars are quite benevolent.) Now, back to our scheduled program.

Is food supposed to be nourishment only? Why can’t we just let oatmeal be oatmeal? Why does it have to be garnished with marshmallows or peanut butter cups? What is the justification for purposely making food hedonic for children? Especially for infants. Nature provides them with enough common sense to know that they’re supposed to eat. Boatloads of immigrant children have made it to the New World eating hardtack, prunes, and herring. They didn’t go on a hunger strike because Mom didn’t bring any Frosted Cinnamon Toast Crunchies.

Does processed kiddie chow play a role in childhood obesity? The Calgary Herald writer Tamara Gignac recently looked at the meals and snacks designed for babies and toddlers, and did not like what she saw. Actually, the University of Calgary did the looking. Researchers examined 186 foods aimed at children and found that in more than half the specimens studied, sugar contributed 20% of the caloric value. They considered this an excessive proportion, and they were right. Mega-doses of sugar are not the only problem. Gignac says,

Specialty toddler ‘entrees’ and snacks have emerged on grocery store shelves, but recent studies have raised questions about some tot meals. For instance, the Canadian Stroke Network raised an alarm last February about a prepackaged Gerber pasta meal it said contains the same amount of sodium as two medium-sized orders of french fries from McDonald’s.

Parents have this deluded notion that items specifically designed for small children must always be benign. There is some kind of insidious “halo effect” at work. If it put a smiling baby on the label, it must be a kindly, well-intentioned corporation. Don’t believe it!

What should the family attitude be toward junk food? Neither too strict nor too lax, says a blogger called Baby. The two biggest mistakes are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. The total banishment of hedonic foods can cause the “forbidden fruit” effect. Sooner or later a child will be in a position to get his or her hands on those foods, with probably a bad result. On the other hand, using hedonic foods as a reward can backfire in a big way. For one thing, it teaches kids to eat when they are not hungry, so eating is not taking nourishment but participating in a recreational activity:

Teaching young children to like bad foods should not be the goal of any parents. Does it make sense to say, ‘here is something that is not very healthy for you as a reward for being good’?

Remember how, in the old days of Hollywood movies, the “bad girl” had to die in the end, so the audience would get the message that her behavior was morally wrong? A more recent film unintentionally echoed this dynamic. Quid Pro Quo is about a guy who went on a road trip with his parents as a child. In a flashback, his parents are in the front seat, he’s a restless little boy in the back. Mom turns around to toss him a piece of candy — and that’s the last thing he remembers before the terrible accident that makes him an orphan and leaves him a paraplegic. Parents, can you see the terrible consequences of using sweets as a bribe or a reward?

“Eatertainment” is a food-industry buzzword for what goes on at venues where entertainment (of a sort) is a big part of the attraction. It also fits the concept of giving kids treats so they will have something to do, as in, “Here’s a bag of chips, now leave Mommy alone.” Eating junk food shouldn’t be promoted to kids as a recreational activity. The French have a word for it — amuse-bouche, which is a bite-sized savory tidbit of something to “entertain the mouth.” In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with the idea of entertaining the mouth. It just shouldn’t become life’s major goal.

How did all this start? Are Rice Krispies to blame? Was that the first food that promised an entertainment factor with its snap, crackle, and pop? Now an entire “junk food wonderland” of Pop-Tarts has been established in Times Square. Check out this lively debate on CNBC between Jeff Stier and MeMe Roth, president and founder of the National Action Against Obesity, where Roth defines food that has no nutritional value and actually causes damage as “ingestible entertainment.” She is dismayed by the fact that Pop-Tarts have 2.3 million Facebook fans. Pop-Tarts, as the TV commercials tell us, are “made for fun.”

As Jamie Oliver says of the Krispy Creme doughnuts, they are made to be loved. In moderation, that’s fine. True, some spiritual traditions see a focus on food as a kind of idolatry, as well as the occasion of temptation to commit one of the deadly sins, gluttony. But in most times and places, for most cultures, feasting is an important cultural bonding event, and attention to the excellence of food is considered a civilized attribute.

There are thousands of foods and almost as many ways to prepare them. Mostly, that’s a good thing. But the further away food gets from the basic nutritional fuel, the more opportunity there is for the shenanigans. Take one of those medieval dishes — a capon filled with larks’ tongues, stuffed into a partridge, stuffed into a turkey, stuffed into a peacock, and then, after it’s cooked, all the peacock’s feathers are stuck back on in their right places for presentation. Is it art, or is it something very like perversion?

Childhood Obesity News reader Bill Bohrer, who communicates by email rather than in the site’s Comment section, adds this mini-rant about another aspect of eatertainment:

You know what really hacks me off is ‘competitive eating’ where restaurants will give you the meal free if you can eat a 7.5 lb. steak and all the sides (baked potato, salad, bread) in less than an hour without throwing up. I was raised by depression-era parents for whom food was not always plentiful even among the ‘haves.’ And even beyond all that, at its very core, when people are going without, waste makes me crazy, especially when some poor cow that was sacrificed, that could have fed 15 or more people a hearty meal, is swallowed for entertainment.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Many popular baby foods high in sugar,” The Calgary Herald via The Vancouver Sun, 06/29/10
Source: “How Palatable Foods Stimulate Children And Teens To Eat More…,” Babychildfamily.com, 05/07/10
Image by avlxyz, used under its Creative Commons license.

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