Just this week, I saw terrifying media headlines about the cancer-causing luncheon meat I pack in my kids’ lunches, the toxic cleaners I use to scrub their bathroom, and the poisonous sodas I occasionally let them drink when we go out for pizza.
Clearly, I’m trying to kill my kids.
Of course, the stories attached to those headlines are mostly click bait and are filled with the sort of dodgy “studies” that are easily debunked. Yet, to the average consumer, these stories create doubt and fear and makes one feel like a bad parent. That’s the real harm being done here.
Take this week’s claim that soda is causing childhood obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association are both calling for additional taxes and warning labels on sugary drinks like sodas, claiming these drinks are the reason kids are getting fat. Reporting on this call to action, ABC News trotted out some scary childhood obesity data, saying that childhood obesity rates have more than triples since the 1970s and that “sugary drinks are one of the many factors that have contributed to this rise.”
While it’s true that obesity rates for children have increased in the last several decades, the beverage a child drinks has little to do with it. While it’s fun to point the finger at big, bad soda, the truth is soda consumption has plummeted during that same time frame, as has consumption of sugar in general. How can we lay blame on sodas, if fewer and fewer kids are drinking them?
Other data casts doubt on the hysterical soda=fat kid claims. For one, sodas and other sugary drinks are no longer allowed in schools. While most schools were already voluntarily prohibiting what people like to call “junk food,” on school grounds, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued new rules that banned sugary and high-calorie snack foods and beverages from schools—including items inside the independently owned and operated vending machines that are on most school grounds.
Secondly, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, sugary drinks, like sodas, only make up 6 percent of a child’s calories. While I certainly don’t think kids should be swigging Orange Crush on the school playground and I am actually a bit of a soda scold with my own kids, it’s common knowledge that kids consume more than just beverages, which is where the other 94 percent of the calories are coming from. Might it behoove the AAP and the AMA to consider these sources of a child’s calories too?
According to my rather unscientific observations of my own kids and their seemingly endlessly hungry friends, children in general enjoy high-calorie foods almost as much as they like sugary beverages. In fact, I’ve observed dozens of children smiling while consuming french fries, mac-n-cheese, pizza, cookies, ice cream and candy. Each of these food items has one thing in common with sugary beverages: they all have calories.
Blaming just one of them for a childhood obesity problem is folly.
The AMA and the AAP are also demanding restaurants only offer milk and water on their kid menus. Neither organization has offered any explanation as to why they think parents are incapable of making these decisions for their own kids. But one can make a pretty good guess why they feel this is necessary: Parents can’t be trusted to make good decisions for their kids.
Yet, most people do understand that milk and water are better for kids. But when a family goes out to dinner (according to polling, most Americans only eat out once a week), it’s often thought of as a treat where you might indulge a little–eat or drink something you wouldn’t normally consume at home. For instance, when we go out to a meal, I usually order a glass of wine and my husband typically orders a beer–not something we consume when I’m warming up leftovers at home.
Kids aren’t so different. When the family’s goes out to dinner, rules are sometimes relaxed and a parent might let a kid have treat, like a sugary drink—a soda or chocolate milk. These decisions are best left to parents who best know a child’s nutritional needs and limits.
Lastly, instead of silly soda bans and more taxes that harm families and businesses, the AMA and the AAP should be tackling the real problem with kids these days: kids are simply spending too little time playing outside in the fresh air. Instead, kids are increasingly choosing to stay indoors, sitting on the couch, “playing” on their game consoles. And schools are supporting this cultural shift. Schools are increasingly introducing technology in the classroom so that screen time is being normalized for activities that don’t even require computers (reading books and taking tests on school issued computers, for instance).
These medical organizations might also encourage parents to give their kids a bit more freedom to explore the outdoors on their own—unencumbered by a pestering parent constantly hovering and warning them of some imaginary danger.
Soda taxes and bans do nothing to help kids stay healthy and these restrictive policies won’t solve the complex issue of childhood obesity. What children need is outside the realm of government intervention–strong parents who pass on the value of healthy eating, portion control, personal responsibility, and the necessity of moderate exercise.