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Kids: Overeating on Pocket Change

Posted Oct 20 2009 10:01pm

This is my latest blog post over at WeAretheRealDeal. Check it outhereor below the jump.

sourpatch A recent New York Times article, “Overeating on Pocket Change,” caught my eye.

Per the article, “… Low-income children in Philadelphia with about one dollar in pocket money managed to purchase almost 400 calories worth of snack food at convenience stores on the way to and from school, according to study published on Monday in the journal Pediatrics.”

“One of the most surprising findings was how many calories a dollar and seven cents can buy,” said Kelley E. Borradaile, the paper’s lead author and a professor at the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University.”

While the study only looked at low-income children (who often struggle to get their basic needs met, let alone adequate, balanced nutrition) — and though I have no data to back this up — I am not so sure the results would have been all that different, even if socio-economic status were taken into account.

Clearly, a lot of caloric “damage” can be done with a dollar in a child’s hands. (Just walk into one of those bulk candy stores at the mall, and you can see for yourself how “far” a dollar can stretch when it comes to sweets).

If parents of low, middle or upper-class children (for whatever reason: lack of time, lack of money, etc.) can’t pack/aren’t packing nutritious, healthy snacks to take to school and are giving their kids $1 or $2 for a snack … what do they think will happen?

Allow me to generalize for a moment here, but most kids (or teens), when left to their own devices, are not likely to walk into a 7-11 and choose an apple (90 calories, natural sugar, filling fiber) over a bag of M&Ms (240 empty calories)– especially if no one (read as: parent/guardian) is looking.

For example, as a teen, I was super-active, between competitive Varsity cheerleading, dancing (tap, ballet, jazz, pointe), and running track (800 m). I ate healthy meals at home, and didn’t really worry about calories, weight, or even nutrition back then. (I guess you could say I was blissfully “nondisordered” the first 24 years of my life).

Soda was for special occasions (like at restaurants or parties) and never kept in the house, and though we could have chips and pretzels at home (Dad’s fave!), dessert was always fruit or Jello. And the only time of year my mom ever baked was for our birthdays–which just so happened to be Sept 13 (sis), Sept 29 (bro) and Oct 2 (me) –i.e., five weeks of cupcakes galore … and then nothing baked for a whole year.

… So if my parents gave me a couple bucks for an after-school/pre-practice snack from the school store (we didn’t have access to a fridge like I do now at work), I’d buy a Grapeade Snapple and bag of pretzels or Skittles or something and down them without giving it a second thought. (i.e., the same “400 empty calories” the kids in the study were consuming).

In retrospect, I know those weren’t necessarily the best/most nutritious choices … but I also didn’t have a weight problem then, childhood obesity was also not nearly at the levels it is today, and I wasn’t concerned with nutrition or food-as-fuel back then, either.

And I have to say, for all my love of Fuji apples and Laughing Cow Light cheese wedges today, even as an adult, I — a gym rat who espouses healthy eating and could literally recite Points, calorie and fat gram counts in my sleep — often give in to a less-than-nutritious snack (i.e., my latest obsession: sugar-laden candy corn) over something that would clearly fill me and give me energy (a banana with a T of almond butter).

In my case, it’s not because I don’t know any better or because it’s cheaper that I make these choices– it’s because I’m giving into a craving, feeding something other than the need for “fuel” (read as: emotional eating, mindless eating) and most of the time, I recognize it … even if I choose to do it anyway.

But for many children/teens, if all they have is $1 — and no one is guiding them toward nutritious snacks at home or at school — are they going to choose a “green light” food or a “red light” food (a la Juno’s Journeys — anyone remember Juno from the ’80s?!)

And more importantly, even if they want a nutritious banana, are they even going to find one at their local convenience store on their way to or from school?

So I did a little informal investigating in a couple neighborhoods of varying socio-economic classes here in my city. I found that at most convenience stores, I was, indeed, able to find sections that carried healthier options like yogurt, fruit, cheese sticks and salads.

But, not surprisingly, these options were significantly more expensive than the junk food options. And, not surprisingly, though each store did have “something” relatively healthy to offer (even if it was just a granola bar), in the more affluent neighborhoods the selection was much more elaborate and much more fresh than in others.

And it made me sad. Eating well shouldn’t be a luxury … and it doesn’t have to be.

For $1, I found that a child or a teen could just as easily buy a banana, if that’s what they were taught to choose, or wanted to choose. Because in many places, yes, a banana was available.

But the banana was, say, $1 (though it’s like $.30 in the grocery store; don’t even get me started on the injustice there) and a candy bar was, say, only $0.59, the soda $0.49.

So what does a child choose when left to his/her own devices, and how does peer pressure factor in? Because the study tells us kids are buying junk, consuming several hundred empty calories a day.

Personally I think it all depends on the child, and their parents’ influence (even if they’re not there) that guides such decisions.

I’m not a mom (yet) but I hope my husband and I can encourage our kids to eat well when the time comes, to make good decisions “most of the time.” If they’re at a birthday party, of course they can have a slice of cake – the last thing I’d want is to pass on any food issues I have been muddling through the past several years!

(Hell, I hope they see ME eating a little cake, too and not fretting over it!).

But I also don’t want them to think it’s necessarily OK to eat cake (or cookies, or candy) every day from a convenience store, because that isn’t exactly promoting a balanced, healthy lifestyle, either.

The truth is, if the low-income children in the study are spending $1 a day on 400 empty calories, chances are other kids of varying socio-economic classes are doing the same.

… And so the obesity epidemic continues.

So what can we do? Don’t we owe it to our children to give them the healthiest start possible?

Studies have shown that parental involvement can really make a difference in children’s eating habits. So how can we encourage our children to make better choices with their money without inciting an unhealthy relationship with food? To say, chips are ok today, but then suggest having a pear tomorrow? To encourage them to make healthy choices “most of the time?”

Since so many parents aren’t making the grade in terms of teaching balanced nutrition in the home (perhaps they don’t even know what balanced nutrition is, themselves, or feel they can’t afford to “eat healthy”), then does this kind of education belong in the classroom, a la Juno’s Journeys?

And, if so, would that help kids when they’re making choices outside of school, too?

How about you? What kinds of choices did you make as a kid/teen? And where do you stand today on the issue of kids, spending money, and junk food? If your child was given $1 a day, what do you think he/she would spend it on? As a parent, what kind of indfluence do you/should you have?

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