Are We Learning Our Lessons About Healthier Eating?

A look at some old newspaper clippings suggests that we've made little progress in addressing our country's poor eating habits.

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Those of you who have been reading these newsletters for several years now know that I am an inveterate clipper of newspaper and magazine articles, which I eventually use to inform my writing or to give or send to others who might be interested in them. In order to make room for new files, I have been clearing out old ones, and this past weekend I went through a box of clippings from the late ’90s and early 2000s.

Boy is it amazing to see what was on our minds 10 years ago — especially since they were most often the same things that are on our minds now. The concerns seem to be the same; only the science has propelled the discussion in interesting directions, often leaving us only slightly ahead of where we were.

One article of interest that was not dated but quoted from a study done in 1999 was printed in the Wall Street Journal with the headline “Cafeteria Food Fight.” It reported that school districts were moving toward hosting fast-food vendors and bringing vending machines into their school cafeterias because of the money it brought in.

A companion article titled “Schools Teach Kids to Give Peas a Chance” focused on programs that were teaching cooking and nutrition in school to help students learn on their own how to eat healthier.

It advised that “Making lunch part of the schools’ educational mission, instead of an ancillary service, could help remove the economic pressures that drive lunch programs to serve pizza and french fries.” In East Harlem, students were even visiting local farms, and the parents were given half-shares in CSAs for their volunteer time with a program called Cook Shop.

Then there was the article from Modern Maturity, November 1996, about two “recent” scientific discoveries that linked nutrition and overall health. “One is that many chronic degenerative diseases are largely caused or influenced by free radicals that are produced by tobacco smoke and other pollutants, as well as by normal body processes. The other factor giving nutrition a boost is that scientists now better understand how DNA becomes damaged and subsequently creates cancer cells.”

The study posited that “nutritional deficiencies are to blame for much of the damage.” The article then ends with recommendations for healthier eating — all of which except one are supported by more modern research.

We certainly have moved away from fast food in our school cafeterias but have not made many inroads when it comes to education about nutrition in the classroom. It seems to have taken way too long in the face of incredibly increasing childhood obesity statistics to introduce nutrition into the classroom.

Just think of the money we would have saved already in 10 years on health care if we had worked harder then ever to stabilize the rate. Instead, in 2208, 18 percent of children ages six to 11 were overweight, up from 13 percent in 1999. And while the science is now instructing us to get our nutrition from food rather than supplements, we are less healthy than we were when that Modern Maturity article was written.

How hard can it be to change the lunches served in our cafeterias? And how expensive can it be to introduce some basic instruction in nutrition and eating healthy at home into our classroom curricula? Whatever the cost in your time and mine — and in our tax money — would surely be worth every dime. And what an investment it would be in the collective personal and public health of our population.

My mother always said that we live and learn — I’m beginning to wonder about that. Let me know what you think.

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