Kids' food should be eradicated. Still with me? I'll make my case.
I suppose it's only fitting that I am writing this on Father's Day. My wife, Catherine, and I have five kids. And while, for them, Father's Day is presumably about me; for me, it's all about them. I am a father because of them.
Catherine and I have four daughters and a son. Catherine actually suggested we come out of retirement some time after the birth of our fourth daughter to see, one last time, if I could make a Y chromosome. Turns out I can, under circumstances I am not prepared to discuss – so let's move on. The point is that our son, Gabriel, is our youngest; he will be 14 later this month.
Gabe has a particular penchant for nature shows. We have watched every episode of "Planet Earth," "Life," "Frozen Planet" and "Blue Planet" multiple times together. He's an "Animal Planet" devotee as well.
Throughout all that programming, we've watched the adults of almost every species imaginable feed their young and teach their young to feed themselves. In all that intergenerational eating, across all those species, there is no such thing as kid food.
Of course, there is infant food. Baby mammals drink their mothers' milk. Baby birds eat the semi-digested, regurgitated contents of their parents' bellies, or beaks or something like that. Best not to dwell on some of the details.
The point is, infants are fed infant food until they can eat what their parents eat – and then that's what they do.
Imagine the alternative reality in which the wolf pack makes a kill, but the cubs don't wait their turn to get at that meat. Imagine if, instead of learning to eat what their parents eat, "kid" wolves ate heart, moon, star and clover-shaped multicolored marshmallows (or perhaps, being wolves, their marshmallows would be shaped like hare, moose, stag and caribou; but it's the same general concept).
Imagine if baby whales, weaned from milk, didn't learn to eat krill; they were indulged with sugar-frosted flukes or some such thing. Imagine the fussy eaters among the lion cubs who turned up their noses at wildebeest and held out for mac and cheese. Imagine mama and papa dolphin talking themselves into the need to indulge junior's apparent aversion to fish. Crackers shaped like fish –fine, but actual fish? Fuhgeddaboudit!
I trust there is no need to go on. Throughout nature, childhood is a time to learn the skill set necessary to survive as an adult, with a very strong emphasis on food choice and acquisition. Every species teaches its kids how to eat.
Every species but ours. We have invented an entire industry devoted to feeding kids differently.
This, of course, is all about money. But since we have a hard time justifying profits that result from doing something to our kids that is at odds with their health, we have confabulated an entire mythology to veil the fact that we are doing exactly that.
Our mythology implies that multi-colored marshmallows masquerading as food are part of what make childhood special and fun. Our mythology implies that without a little help from Madison Avenue and pseudo-food, we would be helpless to deal effectively with fussy little Homo sapien eaters. Without red dye No. 32, our offspring, apparently, would starve. Our mythology implies that "kid" food, just like "junk" food, is a legitimate category of comestibles.
We have got to be kidding!
If we want to justify this, I suppose we have two choices. Either we are arrogant enough to believe that our species, and our species alone, is distinct from all of nature and the patterns that prevail there, or we are deluded enough to believe our own profit-driven mythology. If there is a third option, I haven't found it.
We would be stunned to see the young of any species but our own learn to eat anything that is not intended as the basis for lifelong sustenance. We would be appalled to see a zookeeper feeding Froot Loops to an actual toucan. But little Homo sapiens learning to eat glow-in-the-dark food? We are so habituated to it, we never even notice it's bizarre.
Bizarre, though, it surely is. It's also something very close to catastrophic. We have long known that diet at odds with our true needs is among the top three causes of premature death in the United States. We have long known that the diet-associated conditions that contribute to that toll – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke – are ever more prevalent at ever younger age. We have known, in other words, that we are feeding our kids to premature death. Maybe when we first invented the notion of "kids' food," we were just kidding around. But the consequences are certainly no joke.
My contemporaries may recall a show called Wonderama, popular when we were kids. The closing theme song was "Kids are people, too!" Assuming that was ever true, there was food for thought there that we apparently failed to chew and swallow about how the little devils ought to be fed.
In general, I am very moderate when it comes to regulation. Along with most of my public health colleagues, I certainly acknowledge the important influence of policy. But I appreciate that fact that no one likes being told what to do. I prefer demand side empowerment to supply side admonishment. Even so, I have long favored regulation when it comes to the marketing of food to kids.
I have never considered it fair or reasonable to pit highly paid adult marketing executives against our 5-year-olds. I have never thought it made sense to pay adults to talk kids into eating things their parents would then have to struggle to talk them out of.
[Read: Smart Snacking for Kids.]
But on this Father's Day, it dawns on me that perhaps even I have drunk inadvertently of the Madison Avenue Kool-Aid. We shouldn't regulate "kids'" food; we should eradicate it. Food is food, and the kids of every species learn to eat the food on which lifelong vitality depends. We make an exception of ourselves at our all-too-evident peril.
When we pretend that, at odds with every other species on the planet, the kids of Homo sapiens should learn to eat something other than the food best suited to sustain them throughout their lives, the obvious question is: Who are we kidding? The answer is we are kidding ourselves, as well as our children, for the sake of market segmentation and profit. Meanwhile, the serious, and even tragic consequences of this bizarre contrivance reverberate ominously throughout modern epidemiology. No kidding.
P.S. – I recognize that the eradication of "kids' food" would involve some practical challenges. There are, for instance, healthful adult foods packaged for the particular convenience of kids – such as sliced apples, diced vegetables and tiny boxes of raisins. As ever, the transition from philosophy to practice would involve a need for operational definitions and careful attention to slippery slopes. But these are not insurmountable – and the details of practice can always be sorted out when sound principles are in play.
I am considering starting an online petition: "Let's banish kids' food and teach our kids to eat real food!" I am considering advocating for a national "Stop kidding around with health!" day, on which all loving parents and grandparents boycott "kids'" food. Would you sign the petition? Would you join the boycott? Please share your thoughts – thank you.
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David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is a specialist in internal medicine and preventive medicine, with particular expertise in nutrition, weight management, and chronic-disease prevention. He is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, and principal inventor of the NuVal nutrition guidance system. Katz was named editor-in-chief of Childhood Obesity in 2011, and is president-elect of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.