Childhood obesity has been called “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century”. Globally, an estimated 43 million preschool children (under age 5) were overweight or obese in 2010, a 60 percent increase since 1990. (1) The problem affects countries rich and poor. Of the world’s 43 million overweight and obese preschoolers, 35 million live in developing countries. By 2020, if the current epidemic continues unabated, 9 percent of all preschoolers will be overweight or obese – nearly 60 million children. (1)
I have never been to France (yet) but have often heard the popular saying “French women don’t get fat”. While I’m sure there are overweight people amongst their population, it’s surprising that it is not more given their traditional cuisine of pasta and bread.
And what about their children? As we face an overwhelming obesity epidemic in this country that has trickled down to our children, a large part of that is due the type of food we are consuming. Most kids are naturally active, always fidgeting or running around, burning plenty of calories – unless they are in a food “coma” due to a high intake of processed food and sugar which makes the body basically move in slow motion.
Our typical school lunches in the United States still consist of mainly processed food. Although there have been some recent changes (see this article), it may be useful to adapt to other countries view of school lunches. Let’s compare a typical school lunch from countries around the globe.
Typical lunch: Whole wheat cheese pizza, baked sweet potato fries, raw grape tomatoes, applesauce, 1% milk, low-fat ranch dip Obesity rates: one out of three children are overweight or obese
Recess per day: varies per district, ends usually after elementary school
Other: Most menus exceed the recommended daily amount of sodium (500mg). For over 20 million their school lunch is their primary meal of the day providing up to 65% of daily caloric needs.
Typical lunch: First course: Cabbage and tomato salad // Second course: Roast beef, potatoes, baked tomatoes with herbs // Third course: Cheese // Fourth course: Kiwi
Recess per day: two 15 min breaks, one 60 min break, and usually bike or walk to school
Other: food prepared fresh daily on premises, never frozen, each course is eaten separately, tables are pre-set with ceramic plates, napkins, silverware, and glass pitchers of water.
Typical lunch: Mixed grains and rice, stinky bean stew, simmered seaweed salad, and cabbage kimchi, sweet yogurt drink
Other: Use sectioned metal trays. The two biggest sections are for rice, usually served with pickled vegetable kimchi and soup. Smaller compartments usually hold three side dishes of vegetables and fish.
Typical lunch: Indian-style spiced chicken curry, konnyaku (devil’s tongue, noodle, wakame seaweed, carrot, cucumber, cabbage), strawberries (2), milk
Typical lunch: Rice & beans, Bread, banana and alface, acelga salad
Typical lunch: pasta or risotto, with salad as a separate course
Other: Use mostly local, organic ingredients. Meat only a few times a week on the menu.
As we welcome in the change of season and the start of a new school year, maybe it is time to rethink your child’s lunch box. It starts at home by being the example for your children including regularly exercising and packing healthy lunches for the whole family. The goal is to keep it simple and healthy. Balance is key as well as portion sizes. You want to have a small amount of complex carbohydrates, a lean protein, a little healthy fat, and a large dose of vegetables. Finding foods in their most whole form helps to avoid food dyes and preservatives, which have been linked to hyperactivity and inability to focus.
1. de Onis M, Blossner M, Borghi E. Global prevalence and trends of overweight and obesity among preschool children. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;92:1257-64.