Cheap and sweet (4/08/11)
Literally Guarding Kids From Sugar
Parents are now guarding Philadelphia corner candy stores – keeping their kids out. Right now 20% of American children are obese. Are ad hoc “militias” of parents blocking candy stores a smart way to prevent future obesity?
This is no way to run a country – or a health policy. People love sweets. They will eat sweets, especially when the rest of life is trying and stressful. But the kids eating sweets are getting bigger and bigger, in part because “sweets” now includes most processed foods, stuffed with high fructose corn syrup in almost any imaginable foodstuff. And sweet food is cheap food – because you and I pay for it – with our tax dollars. A nation that can’t pay for its present day health care is not going to afford a future where 1/3 of the population is diabetic – especially when we helped get them that way.
But let’s look at how we arrived in this place.
Why Kids Love Sweets
- Humans evolved to love sugar, fat, and salt. Sugar, in the form of the glucose, is the exclusive energy supply for our blood cells and brain – unless we are literally starved for several days.
- Sugar highs are real – human brain reward centers activate with hits of sugar.
- Sugar is cheap – thanks to agricultural subsidies – so HFCS is added to most processed foods – including foods like fish we don’t normally wish to be “sweet.”
- Kids are bombarded with TV and internet food ads. It’s not just that sugar directly affects brain reward centers – get a customer when she’s three years old and you may have her for a lifetime. That her lifetime may be shortened is generally not a present concern of food marketers.
- Processed foods are very easy to use, quick in their pleasures, cheap, desired by kids, and easily used as “rewards” for good behavior, or just not bothering Mom and Dad.
- Processed food makers have added so much sugar to foods used by children that what is considered sweet is often set at a much higher level than in the past. Kids expect lots of sweetness in their foods, which makes them want more and more sugar.
- In some people, sugar acts as a direct appetite stimulant.
Why Kids Should Not Love Sweets
- Sugar can surprisingly quickly make kids fat.
- Depending on your age, about 30% of sugar goes directly to body fat stores.
- Fat kids are discriminated against by other kids.
- Fat kids far more often grow into obese adults.
- Carrying more weight around makes it harder to move around – which makes sports and athletics, an important part of kids’ self esteem, more difficult to do well.
- Obese kids have a much greater chance of becoming diabetic adults, and diabetes disfigures and kills in myriad ways.
- Obese adults are discriminated against in finding mates and in the workplace.
What to Do Now
American agricultural policy is counterproductive. We pay enormous subsidies for corn, making us the “corn people” as Michael Pollan puts it, with more corn inside our bodies than any other population. We also subsidize corn for ethanol, which may add energy independence but only at the cost of environmental degradation and unhealthy effects on food prices.
Yet American politics rarely looks at food policy as health policy. Our foolishness is harming our children and penalizing our future.
Why are we paying to make our kids and our poor go for cheap, sweet food, when that will help bankrupt our already overwhelmed health care system?
One reason – because we generally don’t do public health in this country – we only talk about health care. Another – because a lot of money is riding on these policies.
Food companies want to make money. It’s easier making money when the government is subsidizing the main ingredients for your most profitable food products.
Our agricultural subsidies must change. And the facts and images that may make us change should be of our children – waiting in line at the cafeteria to pick up chips, sugared sodas, and the pizzas they crave – and then imagining them when they’re 30 and 40, with overhanging stomachs and overburdened spines, slowing trudging their way to the doctors’ office.
Ours is a pragmatic country. It’s time to get practical right now.
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