I have three lovely little girls who range in age from 3 to 8. All three go to school, participate in organized, after-school activities, enjoy birthday parties and play dates, and have a cadre of friends. And everywhere they go, they're being smothered with junk.
Last week my 3-year-old's pre-school had a "color war." An email sent to parents explained that there would be a fruit snack and "a treat of course." It's not so much the treat that's the problem, it's the "of course."
As many defenders of pushing junk food on kids will tell you, "one treat isn't going to kill them," but it's the societal "of course" attitude that might—as if 3-year-olds wouldn't be thrilled to pieces to just play all day and enjoy some fruit on its own.
Last week also saw Valentine's Day. Raise your hand if your child's backpack haul of candy and chocolate was more reminiscent of Halloween than the Hallmark holiday of love. When I was a kid we gave out cheesy little cards with Disney characters—when did candy take over?
And birthdays? I can't imagine a birthday party without cake, but when did it become the practice to have in-school junk food to celebrate? And it's not just the kids' birthdays either. When my 5-year-old's undeniably lovely teacher had her own birthday roll around, she brought junk for the kids too.
To be fair, I can at least see where junk food and holidays and birthdays come together, but I truly scratched my head when my 8-year-old joined a reading club, went to the opening meeting excited to talk about books, and came home to tell us about the candy they were given to commemorate the event.
For us anyhow, it never seems to end. Saturday skating lessons often include lollipops, kids' grab bags from community races regularly contain chocolates, loot bags from friends parties might as well be renamed candy bags, libraries host events with names like "Donuts and Dads," bending a blade of grass with soccer shoes leads to sugar-sweetened sport drinks on the field and often ice cream or popsicles when the final whistle blows, and so on and so forth. And don't even get me started on juice. No doubt too, each and every time I speak up, there's someone out there telling me I shouldn't be so frustrated, as it's just "one" lollipop, it's just "one" ice cream sandwich, it's just "one" chocolate bar. If only it were just "one."
My conservative estimate is that my children, no doubt with the best of intentions, are being offered an average of at least 600 sugar-spiked calories of junk each and every week–junk that we had never intended on giving them in the first place, and in many cases, couldn't decline if we wanted to, since we wouldn't have been present at its offering. Assuming a conservative 70 percent of that junk's calories are coming from sugar, that's 26.25 teaspoons of added sugar a week or more than 14 pounds of the white stuff a year.
It's never just "one."
[See Smart Snacking for Kids]
Somewhere along the line, we've normalized the constant provision of junk food to children. It seems no matter how small the ship or short the journey, sugar pretty much christens each and every voyage on which our children set sail.
There's simply no occasion too small to not warrant a junk food accompaniment. But for me, the strangest part of all is the outcry that occurs if and when I point it out. My experiences have taught me that junk food as part of children's' activities has become so normalized that my questioning this sugary status quo genuinely offends people's sensitivities and sometimes even generates frank anger.
Despite incredible medical advances over the course of the past 60 years, I would argue that the world is a less healthy place than it once was. Cooking has become a lost art, unstructured active play is on the endangered species list, and candy, which certainly has always understandably enjoyed a coveted place in children's hearts, has somehow become the normalized cornerstone of their culture.
People other than their parents giving children junk food shouldn't be considered "normal," and until that attitude changes, I guess I'll just have to keep pointing out how crazy our new normal has become.
What's the craziest candy or junk food tie-in you've seen with your children?
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.