Unhealthy Breakfast habits of Children

Judith Wurtman Health Guide

    In the high school where I tutor kids in science, everyone is always eating. As soon as the students get settled in the classroom they reach into their knapsacks to open bags of salty crunchy snacks.  Apparently it is allowed as long as the crunching noises are kept to a minimum. School starts at 7:30 am so for many of the students, the morning snack of Doritos, potato chips, Funyuns and tortilla chips is their breakfast.  Since teenage snacking habits would make a dietician weep with frustration, their choice of breakfast foods is not surprising. But students are not the only ones eating these snack foods. When I go out in the hall or into the office, I see the teachers, office staff and hall monitor munching on the same snacks, although they will occasionally vary their choices with candy bars or doughnuts.

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    As someone who is pretty much oblivious to the types of crunchy, salty high-fat snack choices out there, I was startled to see so many people eating foods that clearly belong in the junk food category. In my months at the school, I never saw anyone, teenager or adult, munch on baby carrots, apple slices or string cheese sticks. Nor did anyone drink water, milk or juice.


    Was the fact that everyone seemed to be snacking on the same foods influenced by the need to fit in? Would the teacher or student who pulled a bag of baby carrots to snack on be looked upon as a weirdo? If an administrative assistant snacked on rice cakes or a student munched on grape tomatoes, would the others assume that the healthy snack food eater was on a diet or trying to be different?


    What we eat when we are away from home may reflect our desire to eat like everyone else.  I remember a story I heard years ago from a professor whose Italian mother made him sandwiches of mozzarella cheese, fresh tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil and chewy Italian bread to take for elementary school lunches. "I was so embarrassed at eating this obviously un-American lunch that I often just threw it away, " he told me. "Then one day a friend whose mother made him peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches on Wonder bread asked to taste my sandwich. He loved it and begged me to trade with lunch with him. So for the rest of the school year l ate American and he ate my mother's delicious lunch."


    Sometimes our ability to stick with a diet plan is challenged or reinforced by what our companions are eating. How many times are people told," Oh a small bite won't hurt you, " or " This restaurant is special so order something other than fish and a salad or  " I made this for especially for you so just forget about cholesterol. "


    On the other hand, if we are eating with health/weight conscious friends or relatives, we may be ashamed to order the fried everything platter or to fill our plates with several helpings of dessert at a buffet table. 


    Conforming to what others are eating can have positive or negative health and weight consequences. Obviously the junk food consumption at the high school reinforces the belief that eating such foods day after day is fine. No teacher is going to reprimand a student for eating Doritos rather than a container of yogurt if she is carrying the same food in her own bag.


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    But might it not be possible to use the power of conformity as a way of improving our food choices?  Some schools have been doing this already by limiting snack and meal options to healthy foods. If all the students are snacking on granola bars, rice crackers or apples, then that is perceived as the "in" way of eating. Obviously the staff of the schools has to reinforce this and not dig out their candy bars behind closed doors.

    We adults also benefit from imposed conformity in our food choices. The removal of trans fats from food removed a potential health hazard and even those of us who couldn't tell the difference between a trans fat and a toad are benefiting. Eating with a group who order appetizers rather than entrées because they prefer smaller portions or decide to share a dessert rather than each eating his or her own restricts our own calorie consumption. I doubt many would draw attention to their own eating by stating that they were ordering a dessert only for themselves and were not going to share. I am struck by invitations to a catered meal which lists fish and vegetarian options.  In the past, if you did not eat red meat, you had to content yourself with the salad and rolls for your meal. Now the large numbers of non-red meat eaters and growing numbers of vegetarians has made caterers conform to this new way of eating.

    However, eating like everyone else has its risks. If your eating companions believe that beer and pizza represent all the necessary food groups, you may find yourself not only heavier but also vitamin deficient. On the other hand, if the eating fashion of your friends is to avoid carbohydrates, your brain serotonin will decrease and your anxiety, moodiness and constant hunger will increase.


    Eating right is a balance between common sense and conformity. Don't be afraid to eat the bread or potatoes (although you should pass up the fried kind) when you go out to lunch or dinner with friends. Just give them a short talk on why carbohydrates are essential to a healthy brain.  And don't be embarrassed to eat healthy meals and snacks even if everyone around you is filling up on junk foods.  Your good health and weight may make you the one whose food fashions everyone adopts.

Published On: May 18, 2009