September 7, 2007

Food for Thought: Extreme Makeover (School Lunch Edition)

Yesterday's New York Times contained an interesting article on a new trend towards healthier choices in some school cafeterias across the country (others, like the ones I featured in a recent blog post on school "junketerias", have their work cut out for them!).

My take? I think removing fryers from schools and reducing portion sizes are excellent initiatives. There is absolutely no need to offer French fries to children every day.

Should they be a very occassional treat? Absolutely. However, the notion than an eight year old can potentially be eating pizza, french fries, and a brownie for lunch every day is disturbing.

As for the appearance of chocolate chip cookies with whole wheat flour and other similar "healthy" desserts, my enthusiasm is more cautious.

Whole grains are very healthy, and many people in the United States are still shutting them out and opting for diets consisting mainly of refined carbohydrates.

That being said -- let's not fool ourselves. A cookie is not, will never be, and shouldn't be health food. Yes, you can make healthier variations, but I certainly hope these students' only source of whole grains does not come from a cookie.

A whole wheat chocolate chip cookie does not come close to the nutrition of a bowl of oatmeal or a banana.

It's crucial to maintain a sense of perspective. Eating two small cookies with white flour is not going to cause obesity or make anyone develop diabetes.

A four ounce cookie, however, is an overload of calories, regardless of the kind of flour it is made with. It should not get the green light because it contains an extra three grams of fiber.

According to the article, some schools are going as far as banning cupcakes from birthday celebrations. I must say I side with the flabbergasted PTA members on this one.

If a class has a monthly birthday celebration, I have absolutely no problems with each child eating a small cupcake.
This idea of demonizing foods and banning them is not dealing with the real problem.

It would be much wiser to teach children that certain foods should be eaten daily (fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes) while others should be reserved only for special occassions (brownies, cupcakes, French fries, etc.).

The most eye-catching part of the article for me?

"...under the federal guidelines, jelly beans and Popsicles are banned because they have “minimal nutritional value.” But Snickers and Dove bars are not because they contain some nutrients."

Doh! This is precisely why simply focusing on a handful of nutrients results in faulty judgment.

A popsicle might not provide any vitamins or minerals, but it is not an unhealthy snack. The average frozen fruit stick provides 50 calories and two teaspoons of sugar.

Meanwhile, a Dove bar provides 30% of the daily saturated fat recommended limit and almost 5 teaspoons of sugar! Allowing it in schools solely on the basis that it contains four percent of the daily value of calcium is ludicrous.

The best thing that can result from this trend towards healthier eating at school is that children will hopefully be exposed to new foods, textures, tastes, and ingredients they are not getting at home, thereby expanding their palates and nutrition habits.

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