Our Kids Could Change the Course of Healthy Eating
The news has been grim: one in three American kids is overweight or obese, according to the American Heart Association. In Maine, more than half of all adults will be obese by 2030, wreaking havoc on the state’s health and its economy. With spiking obesity rates come unprecedented rates of Type 2 diabetes, higher incidences of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and many weight-related conditions. For the first time in history, the younger generation may have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
Lamenting the poor health and nutrition of our youth seems to be part of the cultural script. There is no shortage of blame. Scientists have uncovered evidence that everything from gut bacteria and antibiotic use to sleep deprivation contributes to a population destined to be larger and sicker. While new factors emerge, others remain culpable, including portion sizes and endless exposure to nutritionally-poor processed foods and their mammoth advertising budgets. Add factors like fewer families cooking at home (and fewer kids learning to cook), tight budgets that lead us to less healthy choices, and less time being active, and we have a recipe for a nutritional doomsday for today’s youth.
At the same time, according to a Generational Consumer Trend Report issued this year by the food industry market research firm Technomi, today’s millennials consider healthy eating important. Young adults, says the report, have greater awareness of and appreciation for food and health-related issues. It may be that the younger generation is primed for better choices: general opinion suggests they are more open to receiving health messages and they possess a healthy skepticism when it comes to advertising claims. As a result, messages about the importance of fruit and vegetables and research about disease prevention may be getting through, starting trends in good health for the generations that follow.
Here in the land of wild blueberries, the University of Maine reports that more students are enrolling in their food and science program, for example. According to the report, enrollment in the program has been nudged by the importance of personal health and wellness for a new generation that has been seeking out whole, natural foods in an effort to be and feel well.
The news may represent a single point of light in a world of nutritional darkness, but it also may indicate real generational differences in the choices we make about food – differences for the better. In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, signs of a hopeful, healthier future can be found in many places in the nation and locally.
A New World of Healthy Eating
Much of the focus on our kids’ eating has been on the schools, where poor options have been the rule rather than the exception. Choices in the lunch line are improving as schools join the movement to eliminate veggie stand-ins and offer more whole foods. In fact, childhood obesity rates have declined slightly in some cities and states that have taken on the issue of school lunch nutrition. Close to home, Maine Harvest Lunch puts local foods on school menus across the state at certain times in the school year. The initiative has prompted schools to purchase food from Maine farms and other food producers year round, causing a virtuous cycle within the industry. And, when school doors close, summer camps pick up where they left off, exposing kids to local produce and diverse, whole foods. That’s true especially in areas around Maine and Canada, where what goes on in the lunch room at meal time is as important as the activities outside.
In addition to changes in the lunch line, educational programs for kids, legislation about food claims, and healthy eating role models are contributing to changing the food environment of young people and helping them develop a connection to their food sources. It’s these changes that make kids more likely to embrace diverse foods and eat more widely across the food, color, and nutrition spectrum and rely less on a traditional American diet full of fat, salt, and sugar.
Be Part of Positive Generational Change
Can a new generation change the course of our health? A case can be made that it can. Evidence of positive change can be found everywhere. And, the more we recognize the good nutritional choices kids and their families make – eating more fruits and vegetables, either fresh or fresh frozen and more whole, nutritionally-dense food – the more we can propagate good choices in our own families and communities.
Recently, a Wild About Health reader said she started using frozen wild blueberries and spinach in a “synergistic smoothie” every morning based on Dr. Daniel Nadeau’s recipe. She began making a little extra for her teenage daughter, a notorious breakfast-skipper, who loved them and started making them herself. Now, no matter what the rest of the day brings nutritionally, she knows they’ve both had at least 2-3 fruit and vegetable servings. We can all start being more aware of our own healthy eating, too, and model that behavior for our kids. We can challenge them to cook themselves, help them try new recipes, and enlist them to help us shop for whole foods whether local, fresh or frozen. We can let them stock the fruit bowl, or be in charge of buying their favorite frozen fruit to keep in the freezer for snacking. We can bake a fruit pie together, or involve them in picking up squash from local farmer’s market. We can learn not to dwell on the negative choices they make, and start noticing the positive ones, so we can nurture and build on them.
There’s no denying the perils that face the health of our nation’s youth. But a nutritional course correction could be just a generation away. The more we recognize positive change, the more we open the door for health and nutritional messages to get through so our kids can lead the way in the quest for a healthy future.
Get kids cooking. Try these 10 ways to get kids involved in cooking and shopping from Fruit and Veggies More Matters.
See evidence of healthy change in your family or in your community? Let us know!