Balancing the scales

March 14, 2004|By Nicholas Leonhardt

AMERICA'S PUBLIC Enemy No. 1 is now the French fry. The food police place fast food at the top of the "Most Wanted" list while charging that the nation's high-fat diet makes 64 percent of Americans overweight.

Most teens wipe the mayo off their mouths to insist that obesity, like taxes, only happens to the old. Wrong. One in six children is overweight, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say obesity among adolescents has tripled since 1980.

Much-maligned teens are not the only ones battling the bulge. Toddlers, too, have been branded couch potatoes, earning their spot on the national sofa of shame for too little exercise. Anyone who supervises a 3-year-old may find it unbelievable that such tiny tornadoes get just 20 minutes of physical activity a day. But the British medical journal Lancet claims the average toddler today eats one-fourth less than a toddler did 25 years ago yet does not exercise for the recommended hour.

The nation is attacking the problem of fat in true American fashion: overreacting and obsessing over the dangers, blaming it on television and devising a solution so unrealistic that it is doomed to fail.

Remember the poor carbohydrate? Nutritionists suggested reducing consumption, and instantly carb was vilified as a four-letter word. Restaurants now compete over which has the least carbs on its menus. How long can this nation survive on crustless pizza and sandwich fillings wrapped in lettuce before a chastised loaf of bread sneaks back onto shelves?

A similar obsession over fat in school cafeterias has already begun.

In the spirit of belt-tightening, the American Academy of Pediatrics urges schools to ban all soda and candy. There are rumors that steamed vegetables will replace pepperoni pizza. Flocks of deboned, deskinned chicken will flock to grills where hamburgers no longer sizzle. Lockers may be raided for contraband cans of Mountain Dew. Adults find it impossible to keep illegal substances such as alcohol, tobacco and pot out of teens' hands. Now they want to pry a Three Musketeers bar from children's fingers, too.

Sadly, adults are ignoring the double standard. Parents guzzling their double lattes can hardly demand their teens drink skim milk. Foolishly, adults hand out celery sticks while munching on bagels with a smear. Mothers who complain when they cannot find a close parking spot do not have a chubby leg to stand on when students wolf down a pizza after finishing a varsity game.

Once again, society will make television, the perennial devil, take the fall for this crisis.

Health groups have long blamed the tube for keeping children from physical exercise, but turning off Survivor is not going to make kids jog with their own tribe. Without TV, a child who does not feel like playing outside will talk on the phone, read a magazine, play on a computer, or, in the extreme, do homework. Likewise, a kid who wants to get in a football game will foil every distraction parents invent.

Television also gets the blame for commercials that make junk food appealing to kids. The American Psychological Association is actually calling for a restriction on food ads aimed at children under age 9. Apparently, young children can view a blood-spattered murder or watch Ross seduce Rachel but should not witness a hamburger dripping with ketchup.

Teens don't eat fattening foods because of a catchy television jingle. They eat foods that taste good. Anyone who walks by a doughnut shop when the honey glaze is warm or a barbecue as the ribs hit the grill knows those aromas are the enemy in the battle against obesity. Unfortunately, self-control is the only weapon to fight it.

Let's apply some of that American ingenuity that put a rover on Mars to see if there really is life at the salad bar. But before teens join the line for leafy greens, adults must be realistic. If Prohibition didn't work for alcohol, prohibiting children from eating a Big Mac won't succeed, either. To prevent children from facing future health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, nutritionists must make healthy foods that smell and taste better.

It may not be easy, but surely a nation that can invent the deep-fried Twinkie is up to the challenge.

Nicholas Leonhardt is a junior at Loyola Blakefield High School and lives in Lutherville.

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