Posted 15 April 16

     Last week I had the opportunity to talk to a group of middle school students about nutrition. They had a lot of perceptive questions that reflected some of the same concerns and confusions many of my adult clients have about food choices. This confusion isn't surprising; it is the result of expensive and clever marketing campaigns designed to claim maximum food dollars. Consumers often make their choices based on the verbiage (“good” or “bad”) on the packaging rather than its contents.

     For example several years ago, the hot advertising words were "fat-free". People seemed not to notice the excess sugar that replaced the fat in their usual foods; we also seemed not to recognize the ridiculousness of certain kinds of candy being perceived as “healthier” than others because they were "fat-free". Fast forward a few years and now the current buzz words are "no added sugar", "gluten-free", "no-GMO", "organic" and so forth.

     In an effort to simplify the nutritional landscape for these kids, I laid out five guidelines, the final three of which my foodie friends will recognize as coming from Michael Pollan's work "Food Rules".

  • 1). Choose water. We termed soda, and its fitness equivalent of sports drinks, as diabetes in a can. Flavor can be naturally added to water with lemon and lime or flavored and colored with raspberries.
  • 2). Be skeptical of the claims on food packaging. Some of the most nutritious choices you can make come right out of the ground or off a tree with no marketing whatsoever.
  • 3). Eat food. Sounds funny, but Pollen asks readers to consider the difference between food (which comes from farms) and food-like substances (which come out of factories)
  • 4). Mostly plants. The average American diet could be vastly improved by remembering that the five-a-day rule for veggies and fruits is a minimum.
  • 5). Not too much. This one prompted questions on how much sugar was too much. A sticky question, as recommendations vary between organizations. The World Health Organization recommends keeping added sugar intake to 5% of total calories. The American Heart Association recommends 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women daily and 9 for men (1 teaspoon of sugar equals about 4g). Ideally our regular diets would contain no added sugar.
  • A great app to help make sense of the amount of sugar hidden in packaged foods is "Sugar Rush" - just scan a bar code and you can see how many teaspoons of natural and added sugar are in a product.  This app totally transformed a grocery store experience for my kids.

     It was exciting to see that more than half of the kids felt like they had control over some of the major nutritional choices being made in their homes and felt like they could help their families to make better choices. Even more exciting at the end of our talk was seeing the number of kids who headed to the raspberry-water and fruit slices instead of the soda and pizza slices.