Since I’m in the middle of writing a book for kids, articles about kids and health that land in my inbox receive special attention. Two recent articles illustrate what’s wrong with the prevailing advice on how to reduce rates of childhood obesity.
That advice, of course, is to cajole, harass, or possibly shame kids into eating less and exercising more. (Strangely, there were few fat kids in my grade school despite a lack of cajoling and harassing.) The USDA-approved lunches are lower in fat and calories than in previous years, and we’ve got federal campaigns like Let’s Move! to promote exercise.
Again, nobody had to cajole kids into moving when I was growing up. Playing outside with friends is what we lived for. If anything, our moms had to yell out the back door and demand we stop playing and come inside for dinner. I’m pretty sure once kids reach the point where they don’t naturally want to move, cajoling won’t make much of a difference.
A recent study supports that point. Here are some quotes from a Science Daily article titled Guilting teens into exercise won’t increase activity:
Just like attempts at influencing hairstyles or clothing can backfire, adults who try to guilt middle-schoolers into exercising won’t get them to be any more active, according to a new study by University of Georgia researchers.
The study, which appears in the September issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, found students who don’t feel in control of their exercise choices or who feel pressured by adults to be more active typically aren’t. Middle-schoolers who feel they can make their own decisions about exercising are more likely to see themselves as a person who exercises, which in turn makes them more likely to exercise.
Hmmm … it would be easy to read that and conclude that if you put pressure on kids, they don’t want to exercise, but if you don’t put pressure on them, they do want to exercise. Defiant little tykes, eh?
I think the more likely explanation is that kids who don’t enjoy being active end up being pressured to exercise (because people think they’re lazy), while kids who naturally want to move aren’t pressured. So the associations show up as pressured = less active, not pressured = active.
This age is a critical juncture in a child’s life, as kids typically decrease their activity levels by 50 percent between fifth and sixth grades, said Rod Dishman, the study’s lead author and a professor of kinesiology in the UGA College of Education.
“Our results confirm that the beliefs these kids hold are related to physical activity levels,” Dishman said. “But can we put these children in situations where they come to value and enjoy the act of being physically active?”
Dishman and colleagues at the University of South Carolina are now looking at ways to help kids identify with exercise at a younger age, so that by the time they reach middle school they are more likely to identify as someone who exercises.
I seriously doubt kids exercise because they identify themselves as someone who exercises. I think it’s likely the other way around: they identify themselves as someone who exercises because they enjoy being active. I identify myself as a disc golfer because I enjoy the game, so I play it. I didn’t take up disc golf because I identified myself as a disc golfer.
What parents and teachers don’t want to create, Dishman cautioned, is a sense of guilt for not exercising. The research overwhelmingly found that students who felt obligated to be more active were less likely to embrace activity overall.
“The best thing is to do it because it’s fun,” Dishman said. “It’s the kids who say they are intrinsically motivated who are more active than the kids who aren’t.”
BINGO. The kids who are intrinsically motivated are feeling what Gary Taubes calls the compulsion to move. Their bodies would rather burn calories than store them, so they feel full of energy. They want to be active.
The kids whose bodies are in calorie-storage mode, on the other hand, don’t feel like moving. They don’t have the energy. Exercise feels like a chore. The research is clear on the chicken-or-the-egg question: kids don’t get fat because they stop moving. They start getting fat first, then stop moving.
That means the problem is diet, which brings us to the other interesting article to land in my inbox. Here are some quotes from an article published by the University of Missouri School of Medicine:
Although health experts recommend breakfast as a strategy to reduce an individual’s chance of obesity, little research has examined if the actual type of breakfast consumed plays a significant role in one’s health and weight management.
Of course the type of breakfast plays a significant role. Does anyone think Pop-Tarts and eggs produce the same hormonal effects?
University of Missouri researchers compared the benefits of consuming a normal-protein breakfast to a high-protein breakfast and found the high-protein breakfast — which contained 35 grams of protein — prevented gains of body fat, reduced daily food intake and feelings of hunger, and stabilized glucose levels among overweight teens who would normally skip breakfast.
Heather Leidy, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the MU School of Medicine and lead author of the study, said the key to eating 35 grams of protein is to consume a combination of high-quality proteins including milk, eggs, lean meats and Greek yogurt.
I don’t think the meat necessarily has to be lean, but a big YES on the protein. Protein intake has a strong effect on appetite.
Leidy and her colleagues fed two groups of overweight teens ,who reported skipping breakfast between five and seven times a week, either normal-protein breakfast meals or high-protein breakfast meals. A third group of teens continued to skip breakfast for 12 weeks.
“The group of teens who ate high-protein breakfasts reduced their daily food intake by 400 calories and lost body fat mass, while the groups who ate normal-protein breakfast or continued to skip breakfast gained additional body fat,” Leidy said. “These results show that when individuals eat a high-protein breakfast, they voluntarily consume less food the rest of the day. In addition, teens who ate high-protein breakfast had more stable glucose levels than the other groups.”
Give kids more protein, and they spontaneously eat less. No cajoling or harassing required. They eat less because they’re not as hungry, period. Same goes for adults, by the way. That shows up in the research over and over.
So let’s take a look at what the geniuses behind the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (championed by The First Lady, as the USDA site informs us right at the top) require for federally-approved school breakfasts.
A cup of fruit per day is required. Grains are required. A cup of milk is required, but of course that would be skim milk – although it can be “flavored,” according to a different document. That means chocolate or strawberry milk with sugar. There’s no meat or even a meat alternative required – although in the footnotes, you can find this gem:
Beginning July 1, 2013 (SY 2013-2014), schools may substitute 1 oz. eq. of meat/meat alternate for 1 oz. eq. of grains after the minimum daily grains requirement is met.
Well, that is just damned generous of the feds to allow schools to swap an ounce of meat for an ounce of grains … after the minimum daily grains requirement is met. Kids just can’t be healthy without those grains, ya know.
So according to the USDA, this is the breakfast that will give us healthy, hunger-free kids: fruit, grains, and fat-free milk with sugar. No meat or eggs required.
And that’s why people think kids need to be pressured into eating less and moving more: they’re put on diets that make them want to eat more and move less. Then people blame the kids.