Updated: Feb 18
I beg to question how children and the younger crowd, likely including myself, are influenced health-wise. Health can sometimes be a touchy topic, but health is something that will always be of presence in our lives, whether we decide to ignore the importance of it or not. The way a healthy lifestyle is displayed towards the impressionable mind of a child is largely inconsistent-- it is self-evident in the nutritional choices those same people continue to make later in life. From probiotic shakes to Gushers, from Green Eggs and Ham to Happy Meals, the vast array that completes the whirling roundabout of nutritional guidelines for children makes little sense, but I presume it is largely due to my own perception. Or is it?
Let’s rewind our VCR and go all the way back to the good old days of the mid-to-late 2000’s. As a very serious consumer of cable television, I was immersed in a world of colorful animation, both educational and informational. Nick Junior was the primary supplier of these shows, ranging from Blue’s Clues, the dynamic duo of Dora and Diego (my only dose of Spanish to date), among many others. Milwaukee Public Television also stepped in, a program I hold near and dear to my heart. The morning began with Curious George, followed by the afternoon rundown, complete with some foreshadowing in the form of Kraft Macaroni– Wild Kratts, Electric Company, Word Girl (or Clifford), Cyberchase, and a brief cooking segment. The pixelated gold kept flowing on the old Sony box TV, continuing with Tracks Ahead on regular MPTV.
These were seriously good times, but they aren't at the forefront of the matter discussed in this piece. We deal with the side dishes for the main course, the appetizer for the entree. The same sentiment persists for public television– I would impatiently wait for the next show, questioning the merit and the information coming from the commercials sandwiched in between my high quality educational programming. I didn’t care to see what was being told to me, but I was told about many things regardless, one standing out in particular– food. Advertised was everything from Ensure to the FDA and their nutrition pyramid schemes to Honey Nut Cheerios. Likely aimed at parents, the PBS commercials were quite a bit more health-targeted, and for good reason. Informing children on what is good for them and what isn’t is extremely viable, especially at such an impressionable age. Eventually, educational programming fades into the sunset, and from henceforth comes the three-headed monster known as Nick, Disney, and Cartoon Network.
Not that it should be a surprise, but the tone was quite a bit different from educational cartoons. While the former aims to inform through entertaining principles, the latter aims strictly to entertain. I do not claim with utmost assertion that younger children prefer wild, flashy cartoons to their more subdued informative counterparts, but the majority seem to gravitate towards Spongebob over Paw Patrol. As to why this happens is a question to be answered in a different excerpt, for the focus remains on the greasy commercials sandwiched in between. As the shows changed from patiently paced to quick, bland to bright, knowledgeable to humorous, innocent to vulgar, so did the commercials, especially those about food.
Long forgotten becomes the world of probiotic milkshakes, apples, bananas and carrots. Our cable viewers from 2009 are now introduced to McDonald’s, Burger King, Ring Pops, Froot Loops (or by the foot), M&Ms (R.I.P. mascots) and sugary cereals.
There’s so much sugar in cereal.
Seriously. Honey Smacks has 15 grams per serving, according to Metro Parent.
I consumed a wide variety of these foods; I didn't care about what was in them. I had no concern as to what I was fueling my body with, as long as I was fueling it with something. Sugar is in fruit, and it's in cereal, so it can't be that bad. Cereal has whole grains, too. McDonald’s Happy Meals have happy little apple slices– they must care about me. Look at that colorful branding for Pop Tarts– they’re crazy good, right? Yes, I want to eat Reese’s Puffs every single day for an eternity (an addiction I only shedded recently). The television informs me to do so. These kids in these commercials have friends, and they're having a wonderful time with their epic, colorful brands of food. Good food tastes good, and it makes you happy as a result.
These were the thoughts of mine back in the good old days, when nothing really mattered. I was a bit chubby, sure, but that's just how I was built. My mother said I would grow out of it, and my father would nod in agreement. If the television said it was okay, then it was fine with me. If my parents said it was alright, then I would proceed to sit tight. If the school cafeteria didn't care, then I wouldn't dare question what they were serving. My Mom did though; I was always stuck with a cold lunch. The cold lunch consisted of a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread, potentially some Miracle Whip included, some chips or snacks, and the famous 35-cent Kemps chocolate milk carton. It wasn’t that bad, but my taste buds were surely subject to blandness every single day. I didn’t really care at this point.
But then, at some time down the line, I began to care. I became more aware of others' perception of me. I no longer saw someone who was perceived in high regard, but rather the opposite. Largely, I felt it was because of my appearance– I was never thin, or as thin as I thought would make me desirable. I began to wonder why I looked the way I did– was it due to my lack of weightlifting? Lack of cardio? I began to participate in both of these things, and nutrition was something that still hadn’t come to mind. I’m not sure why, but I never consciously paid attention to what I was eating on a daily basis until this very year of 2023. A year ago in January 2022, I began intermittent fasting, and only now I have begun to eliminate sugar and limit carbohydrates. Of course, these efforts are of my own experiences and of my own research— the majority of information is incredibly easy to find with a few quick searches on Google. But, there is an issue with this whole matter becoming abundantly clear, and questions stem from it: Why does education regarding nutrition suddenly disappear when we reach a certain age? Or does it disappear at all? What if this is just a matter of, once again, my own perception?
It’s definitely a compelling situation to consider. I do believe that what I watched when younger definitely influenced me. Rumors would swirl about your metabolism being able to knock out whatever you shoved down your throat. For some, that is true, and that population remains thin. But it also definitely affects them negatively as well– this population has such a powerful metabolism that they aren't able to put on any mass or muscle. Some fall in the middle and must resort to a more balanced meal, consisting of carbs and fats. Each and every physical specimen is different, and each person has different nutritional needs. Being a junior in college, none of this is groundbreaking, and it shouldn't be. But, it damn well could be to average grade school.
Although it remains a partial reason for my prior nutritional negligence and ignorance, it is still a large reason why I was eating like the average American. The bulk of elementary and middle schools, as well as high schools, do not teach nutritional education to any degree. Perhaps it is rooted in the historical, notorious dilemma of the cheap, no-frills school lunch, or maybe it's associated with suburban American culture in itself. It may even be rooted in part due to the punishment-based, negative reinforcement system that perpetuates within our schools. Regardless of the reason why, the absence of nutritional education is akin to a doughnut, ironically– a large hole in the middle of a holistic educational experience.
Rarely does even the basic science class within elementary and middle school teach anything about basic nutritional requirements. I’ll be transparent when I admit that I knew basically nothing about nutrition before the year 2021. Stereotypes existed in my head– my ex-girlfriend's family was vegetarian, so I was expecting a healthy and happy meal each and every night. That was the stereotype conditioning me into foolery. I was absurdly wrong– each night was filled with frozen cookie dough, Taki’s, chips of any kind, and in general, junk. I was confused then, and maybe I’m being too harsh now. Perhaps this writing makes me seem like the picky, angry keto-diet person who believes the whole of America is screwed, nutrition wise. But I’ll be honest in the sense that my frustration arises from my own experiences and observances. I do believe my concern is legitimate– a fundamental change needs to happen in our schools in order to ensure that future generations aren't raised on trips to Chick Fil A, Panera, and Starbucks. But, I fear this may not occur only until the school itself reflects that in their own lunches. From what started as a cottage cheese sandwich, canned milk and an overly ripe tomato in the early 20th century hasn't made much progress since– frozen pizza, sausage, burgers, biscuits. It’s hard to believe that the school cares, and it’s even more difficult to do so when they serve the same combustible scraps at basketball games, complemented by every type of candy at the Freshmen’s fingertips. Then, the very next morning, they expect us to not bag out of the Pacer Test at fifteen laps, running on the fumes of said sugar and processed cesspit from Sodexo. It’s no wonder why the gym is seen as a burden for everyone outside of the athlete– every physical specimen is different, is capable of different things, has different strengths and weaknesses, yet schools treat children as all the same. From the gym to the cafeteria, science classes, schools absolutely need to acknowledge that nutrition matters, among all of the other aspects of living a happy, healthy life. I wish I knew, at the very least, what I was putting in my body. With engaging visuals and activities, nutrition information can be presented in a fun, exciting way, and differ from the bulk of other classes that these children find insipid and boring. Healthy food is far from inspidi and boring, and is in fact usually the complete opposite. It will never, ever be perfect, but America’s public school system should never strive for anything less than such.
To finally return to our leading question stated in the introduction, after pondering such for a bit, it seems that, at least to start, children and younger adults definitely are influenced health and nutrition-wise. But, usually occurring after the educational television era, around eight to nine years of age, the sources of our influence become less direct, and the outside leadership dissipates. Thus, the instinctual desire for comfort takes over, resulting in a diet supplanted with
incredible amounts of sugar and fat, as well as a lack of nutrients. This is only natural, and isn't the issue pressed by this piece. The fact that schools do not teach nutrition, pass sorry excuses for school lunches, insert chick fil a and taco bell into their halls reinforces the notion that it is okay to eat poorly. The same can be said for the media, where commercials for good food all but cease to air, and are instead replaced by the likes of candy and sugary cereal with colorful characters. The media and school system feeds into the child’s impulses, and flips it against them. Children shouldn't be expected to be experts regarding nutrition, and they should never have to be, but my goodness, they are being stripped of any and all information regarding the subject. I speak, once again, from prior experience– I learned what worked for me nutritionally only recently. It took me years to discover these stats and facts–this is not how nutritional education should work. These things need to be taught from an early age, and consistently from there, for good.
I am aware that these revelations are anything but. It is well known that schools lack nutritional education classes, as well as healthy food. It comes as no surprise that the media influences impressionable children, resulting in an extremely unhealthy, average American diet that can infiltrate into adulthood. Bad habits gained from childhood can persist for years afterwards, from caffeine every morning, to Panera each and every afternoon. If this problem is old news, and is well-known as a stipulation in American culture, I ask a different question instead: Why is nothing being done about it?
Image Source: iSpot.tv, thumbnail of General Mill's Reese's Puffs rap, all rights reserved.
Vernacular Whirlwind: March 21.