Educating kids to fight obesity
By Briana Kerensky
Two men are standing in front of a diner. One, a paunchy, middle-aged man with a growing gut and a receding hairline, leers at the diner’s passersby and gives everyone a sleazy smile. The other man is taller, younger and much more handsome; the paunchy man’s counterpart. But his cocky stance and roaming eyes make women want to hold their skirts down, should he get the urge to flip them up to see what’s underneath.
As you pass by the diner, the two men focus their attention on you. It turns out they own the restaurant and want you to come in for some cheesy pepperoni pizza, piping-hot doughnuts, fried chicken and anything else that might clog your arteries.
The proprietors of the diner are Sat and Trans, the American Heart Association’s newest online characters, designed to educate children about the dangers of saturated and trans fats.
Known for causing high cholesterol and increasing the risk of heart disease, trans fat is commonly found in hydrogenated oil. Hydrogenated oils are solid cooking products, such as margarine, Crisco and vegetable shortening and are created when an unsaturated fat like corn or soybean oil is combined with hydrogen molecules. Companies prefer to use hydrogenated oils because they are inexpensive, have a long shelf life and are great for making baked goods like flaky piecrusts. They also stay hot longer, which is good for frying things.
So, how are we supposed to teach children that the very thing that makes their french fries crispy and their cookies chewy is bad for them?
With processed food easily available through vending machines, school lunch programs and fast food restaurants, American children today are eating worse than ever before. Studies done by the University of Maryland Medical Center have shown kids who start to eat foods with hydrogenated oils – like Pop Tarts and frozen fish sticks – at a young age are more likely to get heart disease at an earlier age than children who don’t. Some 8-year-old research subjects already had artery-clogging high cholesterol and blood fats.
Since the 1970s, the percentage of overweight children in the United States has more than doubled. A 2003-2004 study found that 14 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 5 and more than 17 percent of children between 6 and 19 are classified as overweight.
According to KidsHealth.org, about a third of children are either overweight or at risk of becoming overweight by eating unhealthy foods and not getting enough exercise.
Heart disease is the number one killer in America, taking about half a million lives per year. Recent studies have shown that the damage to the heart and arteries that causes heart disease begins in childhood. With the rate that children are becoming overweight and obese today, one can only imagine what the heart disease death rate will be when they are grown up.
Health organizations and educational institutions are struggling to find a way to successfully teach children about the dangers of an unhealthy diet. This is a very difficult thing to do. It’s hard for children to understand how eating Pop Tarts when they’re 6 will affect them when they are 40.
The American Heart Association tried to tackle this obstacle online by launching badfatsbrothers.com in April 2007. The website, geared towards children, tries to take a fun and colorful approach to learning about fats and eating healthy.
The front page has Sat and Trans, the creepy diner guys, chilling in front of their restaurant and breaking the fourth wall to chat with the viewers. They try to tempt children watching the Web site with tasty foods containing high fat contents.
“You deserve a nice beefy steak and a loaded potato, of course!”
“Have some fries! I won’t tell…”
Sat, as in saturated fat, and Trans, as in trans fat, have biographies that list the different types of foods they can be found in. The “menu” page features cartoon images of foods such as cheeseburgers and cream of mushroom soup, and when the mouse is rolled over them, their nutrition information pops up. The website also provides webisodes, desktop wallpapers and icons, and a fact page entirely about eating healthy.
But does this approach to teaching children about trans fat work?
Marybeth Paluba, of Marlton, N.J., and her two daughters, Mandy, 9, and Emily, 6, explored badfatsbrothers.com together.
“The guys on the Web site were kind of weird,” Mandy said. “They were just crazy about bad foods. I thought they were kind of funny, but if they were real I wouldn’t talk to them.”
“I learned that fats are in meat, doughnuts, ice cream and french fries,” Emily said. “And that fat is bad for your heart.”
Marybeth was more skeptical of the Web site.
“The Web site used words like mono and polysaturated fat without explaining what they were. Those words don’t mean anything to the girls. The Web site uses the word heart disease, but it should show what fat does to your heart and actually explain what a clogged artery is,” she said.
In Rhode Island, a program called Kids First is taking a more hands-on approach to teaching children about eating healthy. Kids First sends chefs, nutritionists, master gardeners and physical activity professionals to classrooms to teach about how a proper diet and exercise can be both fun and good for you.
Allison Acquisto is an assistant professor in the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson and Wales University’s Providence Campus. She teaches classes in nutrition and food safety and used to work as a nutrition consultant for Kids First.
“I would do little lessons on healthy snacks and incorporate foods from the food guide pyramid. The kids would usually get to make their own snacks, like yogurt, smoothies, or dips with vegetables and fruit,” she said.
To Acquisto and the rest of the Kids First team, the trick to teaching children about eating healthy is to keep it positive.
Instead of showing kids all the foods they cannot eat, like badfatsbrothers.com does, Kids First talks about what children can eat and how to make unhealthy foods special treats instead of daily snacks.
“You can’t talk to second graders about trans fat and heart disease. You don’t even really want to use the word disease because you don’t want a kid to come home from school and say to their parents ‘I’m going to get heart disease!’”
However adults decide to educate children about the importance of eating healthy, whether it be through Web sites, classroom activities or something entirely different, one thing is certain: something needs to be done to get the point across to children today so they don’t suffer in the future.
For Emily and Mandy, it’s not too late to start eating healthy.
“I’m going to start eating bad foods less,” Emily said. “From now on, I’ll have healthy snacks like eggs. And maybe granola bars.”
Briana Kerensky is a sophomore journalism major who found a friend and dressed up as Sat and Trans for Halloween. Email her at bkerens1[at]ithaca.edu.