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You Eat … What You Watch

September 9th, 2014

Photo credit: Big stock Photo

This is the first in a three-part series of projects about Nutrition in the News commissioned by  NutriBee  for HTE Kids News. Three high school students were awarded the opportunity to choose their own topics in nutrition relevant to them personally, to youth, and to society as a whole, and write about it. We’re proud of these pieces and we hope you enjoy. 

by Caroline Dunn

Your mouth sinks into a hamburger as the taste of oil, fake cheese, and “all-beef” patties invades your taste buds.  Fast-food: the iconic — and what many would consider to be an unfortunate — image of American culture.  While other countries may be slapped with stereotypes of rainy days or snobbery, America for now, despite its many achievements, is also a country personified by an obesity epidemic, with hands clutched around an oozing burger, a side order of greasy fries, and complete with a gigantic soda.

That image is slowly changing as our awareness about nutrition improves.   But it’s hard to move forward, when so much is rooted in our past.

Obesity and a fast-food mania are intrinsically woven into American culture and consumerism.  Ever since the end of World War II, when the United States finished as the most economically powerful country, it has been in throes of a consumer revolution.  Suddenly, after years of rationing for the war, there was an abundance.  Grocery stores became piled high with canned goods, there was greater prosperity, and the ability and desire to buy more, more and more.

But more doesn’t always mean better … and in the case of food, it doesn’t always mean better for you.

Enter the era of fast food.  It began with good intentions and classic American ingenuity — affordable food … fast. In 1948, only a few short years after the end of World War II and around the time many of your grandparents were born, the McDonald brothers opened their restaurants.

They weren’t the first in fast food (White Castle had been around since 1921), but McDonalds was the first to use an  assembly-line system to make its food . What’s more American than food which could be delivered within a few short minutes, to be gobbled down before diving back into the whirlwind of everyday life?

And were they popular! Americans spent $163.5 billion on fast food (in 2005) — a couple of dollars at a time. Today, McDonalds has more than 30,000 franchised stores in more than 120 countries.  Whether fast food is your everyday meal, a treat, or seems disgusting, its popularity is undeniable. Other fast food chains followed. And convenience foods, in general, flourished. So did our weight.

One in every three children in America is overweight or obese, according to the American Heart Association . That is a staggering number. The numbers are decreasing for the youngest children, ages 2-5.

Why exactly is it so important to eat nutritious food? 

When you eat food that don’t contain the nutrients you need, you fill up on calories, but not the kind your body needs to build strong bones, for example, or to fight off germs. When your body doesn’t have that, it has trouble keeping up and is more likely to have problems. Adolescents who eat low quality junk food are  79% more likely to suffer from depression  than adolescents who eat the proper diet.

It’s not just because junk food and fast food are bad for you, causing all sorts of problems like obesity and diabetes. That’s proven. But that’s only part of the story.

The flip side is that nutritious food is good for you — you’ll have more energy, be able to concentrate and behave better, your body and mind will just work better  … and that results in you being better in school, in sports, and in life.

So, it’s not just about trying to avoid junk food … it’s about trying to eat “nutrient-dense” foods — real foods that are whole and loaded with the good stuff your body needs (and deserves). Like fruits and nuts and veggies and eggs and a few more here .  When you notice the salt, sugar and flavors start getting added in, watch out. 

Why does fast food and junk food  — that we know is usually unhealthy  — appeal to so many of us? 

It’s not just what’s in the food … it’s why we buy it: aggressive advertising .

According to the Federal Trade Commission,  $5 million  is spent marketing fast food to kids EVERY DAY!

By the time many kids graduate from high school, they will have spent more time watching television than they have in the classroom.

Many children see an estimated 4,000 food-related ads each year .

You can see an interesting infographic here at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s site.

Photo credit: Big Stock Photo

And it’s not just TV, it’s movie tie-ins, ads on your handheld screens, in your video games, apps, magazines, and more.

More surprisingly there may even be ads on your school bus . Sometimes even in your homework!

Organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood believe that junk food marketing to kids in general, but especially in schools, should be off limits .

It’s nearly impossible to escape so it’s important to be informed.

When people, especially kids, are constantly pounded with advertisements screaming, “Buy me! Look how happy you’ll be if you do!” it’s easy to want that food … and we often believe they’ll deliver on their promise or in the claims they make.  And then next time you drive past that fast food place or see that item in the store, neurons in your brain will trigger the happy feeling associated with what you saw on TV. Before you know it you’re pulling into the drive-thru or throwing something in your shopping cart. This idea was deconstructed by students at the media literacy organization  The LAMP  in the video below.

And the correlation is there. Children who watch TV ads for food, not surprisingly, eat more food — almost 50% more — than kids who don’t watch TV ads for food.

What you see isn’t always what you get . Here’s one effective (though slightly older) video:

Even if we know eating nutritious food is important… it’s not always easy.

Fast food is easy to get, is inexpensive, and generally pretty tasty — hard not to be with loads of sugar and salt!

But the tide is changing.

There’s a new vocabulary these days, including “all natural” and “organic”. And while those claims also need to be taken with a grain of salt (so to speak), it’s a good sign.

Food producers and families are also more aware at the importance of quality ingredients and its contributors — good soil to grow in, locally grown food generally allows more nutrients stay in your fruits and veggies because of less time between when a food is picked and gets into your body, and the effects of pesticides on our bodies. Schools increasingly have vegetable gardens . The White House has one too.

We know to  read ingredient labels  (here’s a  PBS Kids article  on how to do that).

And we are also starting to  understand better that advertisements are trying to sell us something and it’s not always for our benefit.

How far have we come and how much more do we have to go?

People are demanding food that provides us real nourishment … and food companies are listening, many coming up with improved alternatives, like smoothies, salads, and frozen yogurt (though they’re still not a guarantee to be good for you).

The Disney company, one of the biggest media influences in kids’ lives, has taken steps to incorporate more nutritious meals into their brand.

But, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest , nearly 70% of ads on Nickelodeon were for junk food. Nickelodeon stated in a New York Times story  that they didn’t believe it was their responsibility to be the nutrition police.

Unfortunately, food companies can spend billions of dollars on advertising, but vegetables generally don’t have that kind of budget. You can see a video here about an advertising agency’s attempt at branding broccoli .

But people with powerful voices and wide reach have been helping that out. First Lady Michelle Obama’s main priority, for example, has to been to promote more active and healthful lifestyles for kids, including nutritious eating. She helped developed MyPlate, the government’s guide to eating.

Mrs. Obama has also taken it a step further with her Let’s Move! initiative, also incorporating pop culture.

So, what are some alternatives and solutions?

Well, just because food companies are trying, it doesn’t mean they always get it right. Haagen Dazs, a leading ice cream brand, is currently testing vegetable flavored ice cream  in Japan. The flavors? Tomato cherry and Orange carrot.  Hmmmm. The verdict on that is still out. Would you eat that? 

Other places know they’re on the wrong side of good health, and aren’t trying to hide it. One such restaurant? The Heart Attack Grill in Nevada. They actually celebrate having the Guinness World Record for the most caloric hamburger at nearly 10,000 calories! The recommended calories for an average grown-up? About 2,000. For the whole day! The burger is called the Quadruple Bypass. The sign on the door announces that their establishment may be bad for your health. And when you go in, they give a hospital gown to wear. At least you know what you’re getting yourself into. And it’s all tongue-in-cheek, but, unfortunately, someone did actually die after  having a heart attack there.

Here’s one easy alternative.

Rather than opening a packaged bag of chips … why not opt for some kale chips?  What’s kale, you say? Only a “superfood!” With 133% Vitamin A, 10% Calcium, 134% Vitamin C, 5% Iron, 10% Vitamin B-6, and 7% Magnesium needed in only 1 cup and 33 calories of what your body needs daily. Not only is it ridiculously healthy, but also ridiculously good.

Mrs. Obama got comedians Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell to try some on TV as part of a skit.

Want a few more tips?  We recommend food journalist Michael Pollan’s very easy to read Food Rules .

A few of our favorites from this book?


* “ Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Remember that chicken soup she made from scratch? Good stuff.

* “Avoid food products containing ingredients a third-grader cannot pronounce.” Trouble saying “disodium guanylate”? As a general rule avoid these tongue twisters.

* “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car .”

* “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of milk.”

* “Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.”


* “ Eat food.” Seems obvious, but it isn’t always. Mr. Pollan tells us that there are 17,000 new products on supermarket shelves each year. And he doesn’t consider them real food, instead calling them “edible foodlike substances” and “highly processed concoctions”. These are important distinctions. Not everything sold to you to eat … is actually real food! That’s something to chew on.

* “Eat only foods that will eventually rot.”

* “Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.”

* “Eat your colors.” (there’s a rainbow of food out there!)

We also like this handy chart explaining how exactly certain foods are good for you.

Poster by Liz Cook. Available for purchase at

So, while it’s clear media has a huge influence on our eating, it seems you actually “are what you eat”  … and not so much what ads tell you.

Caroline Dunn has been rejecting kids’ menus since the age of 3, opting for more sophisticated flavors, and eventually an interest in what’s in her food, leading to her passion for nutrition. She is an award-winning student writer and has written for HTE before. In addition to writing, she enjoys math, science, and reading. In her spare time she plays tennis and sings in Madrigals. She lives in Connecticut. 

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