Wow. Just wow.
Researchers from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and found that nearly 40 percent of calories consumed by children ages 2 to 18 were empty calories… Half of these calories came from just six foods:
* Sugary fruit drinks
* Grain desserts, such as cake, cookies and donuts
* Dairy desserts such as ice cream
* Whole milk, which is far fattier than skim.
Good for ABC News for spotlighting this. But despite my initial surprise at the statistic, I suppose it’s nothing unexpected. Researchers have been tracking the rising tide of obesity, both among kids and adults, for almost two decades. And we’ve known for a long time that kids, like the rest of us, are eating an awful lot of junk food.
Yet in all the reporting I’ve seen on the topic, it’s rare to come across a compelling explanation of why we’re eating so many more empty calories than we used to. This latest article, for example, attributes unhealthy eating habits to: “a lack of physical activity, parental and peer influences, and marketing by the food industry.”
Hmmm. Speaking both as a data geek and as the parent of a 6 and 9 year old, those explanations simply don’t ring true.
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I almost feel as if the reporter is clutching at straws. Sure, physical inactivity contributes to obesity; but unless I’ve missed something, there’s not much evidence that sloth itself makes kids drink more soda. And while I don’t doubt for a second that marketing affects kids (see this NY Times article for proof), the food industry could market kale all day long and my kids will still prefer Kit Kats (though I did get a chuckle out of this baby carrot ad campaign). As for peer or parental influences—that just begs the question, since it doesn’t explain why parents and peers are buying and eating all those empty calories in the first place.
But more importantly is what’s not on the list. First and foremost are prices. JUNK FOOD IS CHEAP. In fact, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than it used to be. As the chart to the right shows, the inflation-adjusted price of oils and sweeteners has declined dramatically since the obesity epidemic began in earnest in the mid-1980s.
Here’s another way of looking at how incredibly cheap empty calories have become. A bushel of field corn currently sells for a little less than $5 on the commodities markets. That bushel contains 56 pounds of corn—enough calories to feed an adult human for about 50 days. Yeah, yeah, people don’t actually eat field corn; it goes to animals, or gets processed into other products like high fructose corn syrup. Still, the point remains: the raw ingredients of junk food are so cheap that a person earning the US minimum wage can earn enough to buy a year’s worth of corn calories in a single day of work.
One big reason why empty calories are cheap is that we produce a lot more of them than we used to. Corn harvests have been trending upwards for a long time. And looking at trends in “available” food calories per person since 1970, grains, oils, and sugars have skyrocketed. (As far as I can tell, the “availability” of fruits and vegetables has also gone up over the last 40 years—yet even though we’re buying a few more veggies, we’re buying lots, lots more oils, sweets, and refined grains.)
Second—and yes, I’ll go here—JUNK FOOD IS ADDICTIVE. If my experience is any guide, kids crave sweets, refined flour, and fatty foods. Not all of them, perhaps; but most of the kids I know love the stuff. And I just don’t think it’s marketing or peer pressure that makes kids like ice cream (though I’m sure that effective marketing helps remind kids about the existence of ice cream—which is certainly a problem for parents trying to clamp down on the sweets).
I blame evolution here. Proto-humans didn’t evolve in an environment of agricultural abundance, so we’re programmed to consume easily digestible calories whenever they’re available. Building up a store of fat was a hedge against starvation—a boon to kids’ health, not a bane. But now that we’ve radically altered our food environment, an abundance of empty calories is creating all sorts of health problems. (That said, the connection between weight and health is somewhat more complicated than is commonly believed.)
So what’s a parent to do? Junk food is cheap, abundant, easy to prepare, and to most kids, tasty—which creates a set of incentives that powerfully influence our choices about what we feed our kids, and what they’ll want to eat. Yet most “solutions” to childhood obesity center around encouraging individual acts of willpower—with exhortations to eat better, exercise more, and generally swim against the genetic and economic tides.
I’m skeptical that that will do much. Far more powerful would be a different set of incentives—say, a pricing system that makes empty calories more expensive (as Eric Hess mentions here) but that does so in a way that didn’t undercut the ability of lower-income folks to feed their families. As to the charge that this would be too much government meddling—well, the government has meddled for generations in agriculture, mostly in order to boost the production of empty calories. Maybe, given the abysmal state of the US diet, some counter-meddling is finally in order.
Candy image courtesy of flickr user TheFoodJunk, distributed under a Creative Commons license.
Since when is whole milk “empty calories” or “junk food”?
I agree with Sean. I grew up on whole milk and maybe my knowledge is outdated but my understanding is that the fat in whole milk is actually needed while kids are growing quickly—fat from whole foods is not necessarily a bad thing.
Fair point, Sean.
I’m curious what folks think about NYC’s new proposal to ban food stamps for soda purchases. Adding to the post above, the avg teen gets 1/6th of their calories from sugary drinks (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/121/6/e1604). The proposal has the potential to do something about obesity and diabetes, but on the other hand I’m concerned about the principle of targeting low-income folks because they rely on gov’t assistance.
“So what’s a parent to do?”This is a part of the answer, Clark, not THE answer. But there are things parents can do to encourage healthier eating. First, teach your kids to cook. My kids LOVE to cook. My ten-year old just started frying eggs, and he is so proud! My 14 year old cooks tomato sauce for our pasta and vegetable curries of various sorts. They are proud to feed their families, and they eat what they cook.Also, get your kids gardening. Eating carrots, peas, and even broccoli that they grew themselves is a different experience than eating the same vegetables from the store.So I guess I’d say that a parent should get their kids involved with their food, and not let them be passive consumers. Oh, they still go for candy and ice cream when they can. But vegetables and whole foods are a part of their life with its own attachments now.
The thing I seer missing is that the US government is subsidizing junk food. Corn, soybeans and other ingredients for junk food are heavily subsidized (thus the $5 a bushel price). We need to listen to Michael Pollan, turn those subsidies around and begin taxing corn and subsidizing fresh fruits and vegetables. This will send the market signals to start growing more fresh food. Eventually we can begin to wean ourselves from the subsidies.There are certainly other policy decisions that should come into play. Washington has a somewhat flawed law to tax sugary beverages and use the money for education and health care. A version of this law could be rolled out on a national level and would help ease the change that NYC is making with food stamps.
I had the same first reaction about the milk, but then remembered a coworker mentioning flavored milk being on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Why? Because this milk has as much high fructose corn syrup added to it as soda has added to water. It’s hardly milk anymore.http://www.organicauthority.com/blog/health/jamie-oliver-salutes-dc-schools-for-banning-chocolate-milk/
Clark said, “…it’s rare to come across a compelling explanation of why we’re eating so many more empty calories than we used to.”Well, in today’s penny pinching times, this might have a little something to do with it. (Full disclosure: I’ve occasionally taken advantage of this great deal myself 😉
These are CHEAP calories but they’re also EASY calories. Processed food—like pizza, cake, cookies—might be the kids’ choice but they also require little preparation. Many parents have no time to fix healthy meals—let alone time to grow a garden. Not to mention the fact that shopping for healthier calories takes more effort—whether it’s driving farther to a better grocery store or simply wheeling the cart past the aisles and aisles of junk food.
Speaking of “shopping for healthier calories,” here’s a great article:12 grocery items nutrition experts would never buyTerrific tips on what to avoid and what to affirm in the supermarket aisles. Although, for some of these good-health items, ya just might have to make a special trip to yer local health-food store, with (ahem) a pocketful of money, such as for virgin coconut oil for frying up healthful scrambled eggs. But it’ll be s-o-o-o worth it! Especially if you AVOID HYDROGENATED coconut oil. And don’t fall for any marketing ploy for EXTRA virgin coconut oil, either. Unlike olives, a virgin’s a virgin when it comes to coconuts. Truly a case for government subsidies if ever there was one!