The 800-pound gorilla

At the end of November WORLD published an article that includes lots of contributors. Marvin and Susan Olasky got the byline, but the piece included contributions from Katlyn Babyak, Onize Ohikere, Abby Reese, Jae Wasson and Evan Wilt. The article took up six full pages of the November 28 issue and was also the inspiration for the cover, featuring a plump Uncle Sam in an apron offering broccoli to a young man who seemed less than thrilled. The cover headline was “Fat Chance: What Happens When Washington Says ‘Eat Your Vegetables?'” The article title was “Fat of the Land: How a healthy idea became a bloated bureaucracy.” What was all this about then? About the obesity epidemic in America in general, about the child obesity rate particularly and about Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign and resulting overhaul of federal guidelines for student lunches.

The article highlighted some unique programs around the country that teach children how to eat healthy, that teach children to grow vegetables, that help overweight children (and adults) shed pounds and more. Some of the programs are impressive, while others sound almost too good to be true. After all, I struggle to imagine any environment in which a bunch of young elementary school students actually enjoy (or even actually eat) a lunch of steamed edamame, beef and brown rice pilaf, and oranges. At least half of the article though was devoted to Mrs. Obama’s crusade. The article touted good things she has done, including her willingness to do whatever necessary to promote healthy eating and exercise. She has, the article states, “danced and push-upped her way across television talk shows. She charmed kids by making a video in which she boogied with a turnip. She donned gardening gloves and tilled the White House kitchen garden.” All of those things are indeed impressive. Given that Mrs. Obama is the youngest First Lady the U.S. has had since Jacqueline Kennedy, it has been encouraging to see her engage in activities other First Ladies could not have done. (For the record, Hillary Clinton was only 83 days older than Michelle Obama when her tenure as First Lady began, but I do not think I am alone when I say that I cannot really imagine Mrs. Clinton doing anything mentioned above for public view).

The article does a good job of also highlighting the downside to Mrs. Obama’s crusade, including the resulting public school lunches that most students do not enjoy or even eat, the bureaucratic growth stimulated by so many new federal guidelines ans recommendations and the government overreach that comes when the government institutes a goal of average fruit consumption among students reaching 100% of the recommended level by 2030. Of course, trying to find ways to reach unobtainable goals calls for some creativity and guideline restructuring, such as the USDA’s decision in July to allow vegetables in smoothies to count toward the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s mandate a 150% increase in fruits and vegetables in school meals. Somehow I suspect I am not the first one to think of the ballyhooed inclusion of ketchup as a vegetable in the 1980s (even though pickle relish is what was actually recommended, not ketchup). Another part of the problem, of course, is the waste that results when students are served foods they won’t eat. I do not disagree that children need to be fed healthy foods and that they need to learn to eat and enjoy them in order to have a balanced diet, but I question the wisdom of making that the responsibility of the government.

That leads to the 800-pound gorilla in the title, which is alluded to in the article’s conclusion and is the real inspiration for this post. After referencing the many studies that attempt to diagnose why there are so many obese individuals in the United States the article states the following: “[A]mong the outpouring of papers and studies on why some adults and even some kids weigh more than 300 pounds, no one seems to be scrutinizing the 800-pound gorilla in the room: fewer families with married moms and dads in the home, and more families with mothers who come home from full-time work exhausted. Few things are more politically incorrect than to speculate on the connection between family and fat, yet until we do that we’re driving blind.” This is crucial–and I extend kudos to Olasky, et. al. for addressing it in their article. Of course there are plenty of two-parent families that do not eat well, but single-parent and two-working-parent families are more likely to eat processed, packaged and unhealthy foods I would bet. I dare say, too, that two-parent families with children whose schedules are slammed with school, practice, rehearsal, club and whatever-else, constantly scurrying from one activity to another, are more likely than children with well-balanced schedules to eat unbalanced meals.

To his credit, Mike Huckabee has raised the issue (healthy eating and its connectedness to many of the other problems and potential problems facing our country) in both his current presidential campaign and his unsuccessful 2008 run. Few journalists seem to take notice, few debate moderators seem to care and few other politicians seem to have any interest in the subject. That’s fine, I suppose, because there are myriad other important issues for presidential candidates to address and, as I mentioned above, solving this problem is not the bailiwick of the federal government. What is important though, and the point that Olasky is making, is that there are many ramifications and repercussions to family disintegration that we do not think about when we get used to no-fault divorces, single-parent families and other iterations of the family that vary from the way family was intended to function. Likewise important, and the point that Huckabee is making, is that when we do not consume a healthy diet, it is more than our waistlines that suffer. The law of unintended consequences is alive and well and we can find prime examples of it every day if we just look around. As we enter the thick of campaign season this is good to keep in mind as we listen to the promises and claims of those vying to get our votes.

It is also, of course, a great reminder that it would behoove us all to eat a good meal tonight–a home-cooked one, ideally without any processed food and with the entire family sitting around the table.

Come to the table!

A number of years ago Dan Kindlon, an educational psychologist, author and former faculty member at Harvard University, wrote a book entitled Too Much Of A Good Thing. Among other value insights, Kindlon explains in the book that his research indicated that one of the most influential differences between students who excelled in school and citizenship and those who misbehaved and struggled academically is that the families of the exceptional students regularly ate dinner together. Interesting that the fundamental ingredient of raising exceptional children might be something so simple, isn’t it?

Earlier this month HealthDay News posted an article reporting on a University of Minnesota study on family meals. Researches found that “positive, calm and friendly family meals might help a child avoid becoming overweight or obese.” It has been recognized for a while that regular family meals can reduce the risk of childhood obesity, so researchers decided to find out why, and to determine “whether some family meals might have a more positive effect than others.”

Their findings indicate that “Normal-weight children were more likely to have family meals during which parents offered encouraging statements and everyone seemed to enjoy each other’s company,” while obesity was connected to negativity at meal times. Healthy children also eat together with their family at focused meal settings more regularly than obese children. The study found that “30 percent of meals for overweight kids occurred in the family room, compared to 17 percent for healthy-weight children. On the other hand, 80 percent of the meals of healthy-weight kids occurred in the kitchen, compared with 55 percent for overweight children.” In other words, the actual act of eating has some merit, but the activity, behavior and conversation that accompanies the meal are significantly more important. When a family eats in the family room, for example, they are far more likely to be watching television while they eat, which means they are unlikely to be talking to each other or checking on how each other’s day went. Eating the family room to watch a movie or a favorite show can be fun, but if it becomes the routine it will diminish the health value associated with eating together.

Eating together does not need to be an elaborate production, either. While I would suggest that sitting down at the table together is valuable, it matters little whether you’re dining on fine china or paper plates. It also matters very little what you are eating (within reason, of course) or how long you spend eating it. The average length of a family meal for healthy-weight children was only 18.2 minutes. Jerica Berge, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, said, “When we looked at the logistics around the family meals, they are more doable than most people think. They don’t have to be that long to have a positive effect, and they can be any time of the day — breakfast, lunch or dinner.”

The connections between well-behaved and highly accomplished children (identified by Kindlon), healthy children (identified in the U of M study) and family dining are similar. Said Berge, family dining “gives the kid a sense of security in the world, and the sense that the kid can regulate their lives.” Children who are secure are certainly going to be more likely to succeed in school and to be meaningful, productive members of their community. Parents eating with their children can also serve as role models for healthy eating, including proper portions and proper diet (not to mention proper manners).

The presence of a “screen” during dining–whether television, cell phone, computer or video game–did not impact the health of the children in the study. In fact, approximately 60% of families of both overweight and healthy weight children had a screen on during meal times. I would suggest that eliminating the screen during most meals would add even more to the value of family meals but that is purely my opinion; I have no scientific evidence to support it. While the presence of a screen seemed not to matter, though, the study found that the presence of something else did matter–a second parent. The healthy-weight children were more likely to have both parents present at mealtime. “It could be helping keep the chaos under control, or it could be extra modeling, but it did make a difference,” Berge said. Both are possible–even probable. Probably, however, it made a difference because when two parents are present the security and stability in the home is usually increased.

“One has to ponder, if a mother and father have the intention of having a family meal, you can almost say the next idea of that is they are going to be better parents in general,” said Melinda Sothern, chair of health promotion at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health. “It’s much easier to drive through a fast-food window, or place the children in front of the TV with a frozen meal.” In other words, family meals are indicative of good parenting in general, which is why there is an association between family mealtimes and healthy, successful children. I am not suggesting that good parents never miss a family meal, never let the family eat in the family room and never eat at McDonald’s. But I am suggesting that what may seem like little things matter when it comes to parenting our children. So make the effort, and take the time, to eat meals together, as a family, at the table. Our children are worth it.