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Let Them Eat Cake (Why Junk Food Is OK For Kids, In Moderation)

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According to the C.D.C., "childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years." As a New York Times Op-Ed piece stated in 2008: "Tens of millions of young people will be at risk of illness and death unless this country commits to reversing, not just stabilizing, this epidemic."

Michelle Obama has become the nation's fiercest advocate on this front and let me begin by saying that I fully support her efforts and the health community's efforts to teach kids how to eat and exercise properly.

This post isn't about that.

This post is about a different sub-set of children, children who live at the opposite extreme; children whose parents forbid them from eating anything processed or commercial: The No Candy, No Cake & No Soda Generation.

Having lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn for several years, I observed some of these children. Fed on a diet of yogurt and alfalfa sprouts, their faces were wan, their eyes were hollow. These were children who'd never experienced the joys of a root beer float, a slice of rainbow-sprinkle covered birthday cake or the tongue-prickling delight of a box of Nerds.

On Halloween, these children are cloistered from other children, corralled and forced to exchange their miniature Hershey bars and Nestle crunches for carrot sticks and edamame. It's a sad sight to see.

And though I may be exaggerating, slightly, I do think denying children any junk food is cruel and unusual parenting, an extreme measure that will have negative consequences down the road.

For starters, your child will be an outcast. On a school trip, for example, when Melvin Stevens (Grade 8) starts passing out jelly beans and your child, let's call him Maxwell Peterson (Grade 7), protests that "jelly beans are filled with chemicals and additives and give rabbits cancer" not only will children stare at him in disbelief, at the next rest stop, Melvin will flush Maxwell's head down the toilet.

Things only get worse in college. Having been denied junk food his entire childhood, Maxwell will spend his freshman year experimenting with Twinkies and Fritos, spiraling downward his sophomore year on a steady diet of M&Ms and Cheetos. By the time he's a junior, Maxwell will be that guy at parties, passed out in a corner with a Mountain Dew-filled syringe hanging off his arm.

And all because his parents thought they were doing him a service. But it's the same problem children face whose parents forbid them from watching R-rated movies, from reading "Brave New World" or from listening to Kanye's new album. These kids, the moment they're set loose in the world, explode like a rocket: all that pent up energy and confusion and desire erupts like a geyser, and instead of an emotionally balanced, healthy child, you have a sex-crazed, drug-fueled, junk food junkie.

Heed my advice, then. Give your kids candy, soda, cake--all of it--but in moderation. Explain to them that this stuff is really bad for them and that it's way better to eat fruits and vegetables. Offer them homemade alternatives: make a cake with good ingredients, bake a pie with fresh fruit, or offer up homemade granola bars (or just granola.) Exaggerate the work and the thought and care that went into the homemade stuff, and they'll begin to favor that over the cheap stuff you can buy at any neighborhood gas station.

But because they're allowed to have it, they won't glamorize junk food as something forbidden and, therefore, something worth attaining. It may seem counterintuitive to feed your kids something that you don't want them to eat; but only by de-mystifying it can you be assured that they won't turn to it when they get older.

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Adam Roberts is the creator of the award-winning food blog, The Amateur Gourmet, now in its 7th year. In addition to hosting three web shows for Food Network online, Roberts is the author of "The Amateur Gourmet" (Bantam/Dell) and is currently writing a cookbook for Artisan Books. You can find him on Twitter at @amateurgourmet.

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