Tag-team of forces targets poor eating habits of U.S. kids NUTRITION CRUNCH

October 12, 1994|By Kim Pierce | Kim Pierce,Universal Press Syndicate

Hard to imagine, but every hour kids sit in front of the television munching chips or cookies is like eating in their sleep -- a double whammy of junk food in, no activity out.

"Children watch on average 25 hours a week," says Dr. Isobel Contento, professor and nutrition education program coordinator at Teachers College, Columbia University. "That's the equivalent being asleep in terms of energy expenditure."

But very soon, those same sofa spuds will be bombarded with messages about good nutrition -- on TV, at school and in the grocery store -- thanks to joint government-industry-health group programs and several individual efforts.

Experts credit the Clinton administration for this flurry of action because of the emphasis the president has put on nutrition.

They also hope the coming nutrition blitz will help counteract the many ways television sabotages good eating.

And it isn't just the sitting still. While watching, kids are exposed to hour after hour of food ads -- and those ads are saying, in not-so-subtle-ways, "Eat me, buy me, get your parents to spend money on me." And you can bet it's not Mr. Carrot or Flo Broccoli talking. Yet.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest did an analysis of foods advertised the most to children, Dr. Contento says, "and not a single cookie, frozen dinner, dessert, hot dog, [or] granola bar qualified for 'healthy' status." Nothing met the criteria in the consumer group's report, although some foods were more healthful than others.

Television is not the only culprit undermining the way kids eat.

When Junior isn't watching TV, he's more likely than ever to be fixing his dinner or breakfast alone, says pediatrician Dr. Marianne Neifert, otherwise known as Dr. Mom, the McCall's columnist and author of two popular child-rearing books. Often this means popping frozen pizza or chicken nuggets in the microwave.

Then there are the children who don't eat breakfast at all. They tend to have more weight problems -- both overweight and underweight -- than kids who manage to eat a morning meal, Dr. Neifert said at a recent children's nutrition conference in Washington.

And fast-paced '90s lifestyles too often mean a burger and fries is as good as it gets for some family meals.

Is it any wonder, then, that America's 64 million kids are in a nutrition crunch?

"How children eat is a critical health issue," says Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Ellen Haas. "What they eat affects how they feel, how they learn and how they grow."

What kids eat can set them up for good health -- or bad -- as adults.

"Bad habits in 7-, 8-year-olds are tomorrow's heart attacks, strokes, diabetics," said Ann Rosewater, a Health and Human Services deputy assistant secretary.

A trip down this road starts with too many high-fat, high-calorie, sugary foods -- candy, ice cream, cookies, chips, hamburger meat, hot dogs, mayonnaise, pizza, french fries, fried chicken, soft drinks -- foods too often short on nutrients such as vitamins, calcium and fiber.

What's crowded out are fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, proven risk-reducers for a multitude of health problems from heart attacks to some cancers.

"It's very hard for some parents to understand [that] an investment early on can be a tremendous benefit later on," says Nancy Chapman, a Washington consultant who tracks food policy issues. "We have more obese children than any nation in the world," says Dr. Chapman, also a registered dietitian.

So the object -- indeed, the national objective -- is to get kids on the good-eating bandwagon early.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's doing its part with moves such as revamping the National School Lunch Program. It's also gearing up for the education part of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which gave us the new food labels.

The USDA isn't tackling this alone. It's working with private groups, such as the American Heart Association, and sister agencies, such as Health and Human Services, to get the nutrition message out. Kids are only one of the target groups.

The idea is to make sure people see messages about good eating everywhere from TV to the doctor's office, from the grocery store to the classroom, Ms. Haas says.

"It becomes one of those campaigns that has a snowballing effect," she says, "so kids become the change agents, the way they are in recycling and seat belts."

Other groups that have toiled for years to get more nutrition information out are also watching their work come to fruition now.

Before long, kids will be seeing TV spots on nutrition starring Curious George, the monkey from the children's book series, in the KIDS-NET campaign for food label literacy.

Rep. Ron Widen, D-Ore., is pressing food makers to put some of their marketing savvy to work on nutrition. Two companies are leading the pack, a spokeswoman says -- McDonald's, with its "What's on Your Plate" spot, and Dole, which has produced public service announcements extolling the virtues of fruits and vegetables.

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