It's Kids' Diets, Stupid.*

lack of exercise isn't the problem

The processed food and sugary beverage industries like to talk about exercise and calorie “balance” because it conveniently shifts attention away from their own products’ role in driving obesity and poor health.

Coca-Cola’s now-defunct Global Energy Balance Network, for example, stressed Americans’ lack of exercise as the true cause of obesity, while McDonald’s 540 Meals, a made-for-schools infomercial, used intentionally vague calorie balancing messaging to encourage kids to eat more fast food. Just last week, the British Nutrition Foundation (which accepts food industry funding) tried to restore public confidence in ultra-processed foods by claiming that “processed foods shouldn’t be blamed for problems related to increasingly sedentary lifestyles.”

But the old “all calories are equal” dietary model hasn’t stood up to the research, which says we can’t just “exercise away” our excess weight. The quantity and nutritional quality of our food matters far more. And now we have one more provocative study to add to the mix.

As described last week in the New York Times, researchers compared the diets, body weights and activity levels of urban and rural children from the same Indigenous group in Ecuador. Even though the rural kids were far more physically active—running, playing, and foraging all day—they burned about the same number of calories each day as the more sedentary urban children. That alone is fascinating, and tells us something important about our bodies’ apparent unwillingness to expend precious energy. But despite their similar daily calorie expenditure:

The urban Shuar children proved to be considerably heavier than their rural counterparts. About a third were overweight by World Health Organization criteria. None of the rural children were. . . .

What differed most were their diets. The children in the market town ate far more meat and dairy products than the rural children, along with new starches, like white rice, and highly processed foods, like candy. In general, they ate more and in a more-modern way than the rural children, and it was this diet . . . that contributed most to their higher weight.

This “more-modern” way of eating is, of course, our own children’s everyday reality. Indeed, the entire premise of my book, Kid Food, is that American children—even more so than adults—are inundated with ultra-processed food at every turn, from school lunch trays to sports snacks to restaurant children’s menus. And even parents striving to offer healthier food are often duped by misleading health and nutrition claims on products that turn out to be just more of the same.

Exercise is still important, of course, for the host of mental and physical benefits it offers our children (and ourselves.) But when we look at our troubling rates of childhood obesity and related diseases, it’s clearly our kids’ diets that are sorely in need of a societal overhaul.


** For readers too young to remember the Clinton administration, here’s the inspiration for today’s headline.

And now for the rest of this week’s kid/food round-up. . . .

Top Kid/Food News 🧒🏽 📰

  • Three weeks ago, I told you about an alarming new Congressional report finding excessively high levels of toxic heavy metals in baby and toddler foods. But Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich puts the problem in perspective by examining the heavy metals throughout our entire food supply. As one quoted advocate puts it: “‘This is not a baby food problem. This is a food problem.’”

  • BiteBack2030, a youth-led food advocacy group in the UK, has issued a damning new report about online junk food advertising to kids. One sample statistic:

  • The United Nations World Food Programme has issued its 2020 State of School Feeding Worldwide report, finding that the pandemic has “dealt a blow that brought an end to a near-decade of global growth in school feeding programmes.”

  • Post Consumer Brands is settling a 2016 lawsuit brought by consumers who claimed the company’s use of “lightly sweetened” on its Frosted Mini-Wheats and Smart Start cereals was misleading. The company will no longer use terms like "no high fructose corn syrup” and "nutritious" on products deriving 10 percent or more of their calories from sugar, and it will pay out $15 million to qualifying cereal purchasers. (Kellogg settled a similar lawsuit in 2019.)

  • A bipartisan bill is introduced in Minnesota to improve the nutritional quality of beverages on restaurant children’s menus. According to this list from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, as of last October, twenty-two localities or states have passed some kind of healthier restaurant kids’ meal legislation.

  • In 2009, the food package offered under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) was greatly improved. A new study finds that pregnant moms who received that more nutritious food package had babies with improved developmental outcomes in the first two years of life.

Cafeteria Corner: School Food News 🍎 🏫

  • The School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) annual Legislative Action Conference takes place (virtually) next week, from March 8-10. As we discussed here, the organization will be lobbying for the first time ever for free school meals for all children. 🤞🤞🤞

  • On a related note, an encouraging new Rudd Center study finds that schools serving universal meals under the Community Eligibility Provision are able to maintain the meals’ nutritional quality while incurring lower costs. (The study appears in a special issue of the journal Nutrients devoted entirely to research about school meals.)

  • But in the pandemic, the picture is far less rosy. The SNA just released a new report finding that Covid has significantly impaired school meal programs: as compared to 2019, reimbursements in 2020 dropped almost 18 percent, while 15 percent fewer lunches and breakfasts were served.

  • Denver Public Schools will receive$750,000 grant from the Life Time Foundation to eliminate seven particular ingredients often found in highly processed foods. More on the Life Time grant program here.

  • U.S. and Scottish school food experts will share their experiences and insights from the pandemic during this free webinar on March 10th, which is also International School Meals Day.

  • The Rochester City School District is again in the news for serving subpar meals to its students. This time: green-gray bologna sandwiches. Ugh.

  • Insider shares a video purporting to show school meals around the world.

For Growing Eaters—and Those Who Feed Them 👶 🥣

  • As I mentioned here, food and beverage companies are exploiting the pandemic by advertising unhealthy products on school-sanctioned online learning platforms. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is circulating a petition asking the USDA to put a stop to this exploitative practice. You can add your name here.

  • I was recently interviewed by health journalist Julie Revelant on her new Food Issues podcast, which I recommend to any parents interested in kid/food issues. Listen to our wide-ranging discussion about child-directed food and drink marketing here.

  • From black cumin mash to pepper-leaf soup: how new moms rely on their culture’s traditional foods for postpartum healing.

  • A Stanford doctor is using an asthma drug to successfully desensitize food-allergic children.

  • Some tips on getting your kids to make their own healthy snacks.

  • This cool collection of antique and ancient baby bottles spans 2,000 years.

Blast From The Kid/Food Past 📜 🕰️

I recently came across a file of historical research I compiled while writing Kid Food—random tidbits that never found a place in the final manuscript—and thought I’d share some of them here now and then. This week’s entry: a New York Times article from 1912 advises parents to give kids more candy because—according to doctors (!!)—it’s “one of the best things they can eat.” 🤔

The Grown-Ups’ Table 🍸🍴

Some interesting food links that caught my eye:

  • Canadian butter is suddenly rock hardwhat gives?

  • Tiny replicas of real grocery products—and why we find them so appealing.

  • Mars Wrigley tests out a robot to roam the supermarket and push candy on unwitting shoppers.

  • A fascinating bit of food history: how nuns ironing their habits led to this beloved Portuguese confection.

Just One More Week to Join the Flock! 🐦 💕

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Until Next Time!

OK, that’s it for this week! If you enjoyed this newsletter, please help other readers find it:


And don’t forget: If you work in the kid/food world and have something big going on—an article or op-ed you've written, an innovation in your school food program, a new advocacy campaign or policy initiative, or recently published research— shoot me an email! 📫 I can’t promise that every item will make it into the newsletter, but I’d love to know about it. (Pease note, however, that I don’t promote new kid food products or services here.)

Readers can always connect with me via e-mailTwitterFacebook, and Insta, and you can learn more about my book at my author website,