Schools have become hazardous health zones full of empty calories, junk food and stripped-down physical education programs that are cultivating a nation of fatter, dumber and more aggressive kids. In the film, "The Social Network," Mark Zuckerberg tells his friend that there are more geniuses in China than there are people in the United States. The Cold War gave us the missile gap, but now we have something much more threatening to our future and our children's future -- the achievement gap.
When most school kitchens have only deep fryers, microwaves and displays for candy and junk food at the checkout counters, how can children stay healthy or learn? When the food served is as addictive as heroin or cocaine, who is accountable?
General Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, shared with me that 70 percent of applicants for the military are unfit to serve and can't pass standardized qualifying tests for military service. The school lunch program was started in 1946 because military recruits were too thin to serve in the military; now, in part because of our school lunch program, our children are too fat and academically challenged to serve.
Kids who skip breakfast and eat sugar laden, additive laced foods, and who get 10 to 15 percent of their calories from liquid sugar drinks like sodas and "sports" drinks not only gain weight and get early diabetes, heart disease and stroke in adolescence, but can't pay attention, are less alert, can't solve problems or do math, have a myriad of learning deficits, are more depressed, anxious and even violent. One in six children in America has a neurodevelopmental problem such as learning deficits and attention deficit disorder. Could it be due to what we are feeding our children and the lack of physical activity?
In his landmark paper, Healthier Students are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap, Columbia professor, Charles Basch documents the self-evident premise that kids' brains don't work if they don't eat well and they don't move their bodies. When one in three kids skips breakfast and the rest have vending machine fare of chips and soda, sugary cereals or worse, how can they learn? When the average kid logs eight hours of screen time a day but only one in five kids meets the recommended levels of physical activity a day developing brains don't work. Professor Basch has recently met with Arnie Duncan, Secretary of Education, and recommended a series of policy changes that will lead to healthier and smarter kids.
Research shows that food additives contribute to attention deficit disorder that affects almost one in ten children with many more suffering a milder version.(i) A landmark new paper in the Lancet, found that delayed food sensitivities caused attention deficit disorder and removing food sensitivities could reverse attention deficit disorder in 75 precent of children.(ii) Aggression, violence and bullying on are on the rise in schools. In 2005 there were 628,000 violent crimes among students 12 to 18 years old. Twenty-eight percent of these kids reported being bullied in the previous six months, and 8 percent were threatened or injured with a weapon in the preceding 12 months. A prison study in England found that supplementing prisoners with multi-vitamin and fish oil could reduce violent crime in prisons by 37 percent.(iii)
So what can you do to help your child and what can we do as a nation to raise a smarter, fitter, happier generation of children? It is a two-part solution. We have to take back our homes and our schools, which have been hijacked by the food industry.
Take Back Your Homes
You have total control over what you bring into your home, and what you choose to do there. Small changes can have a big impact on your family's and your children's health and happiness. These changes also impact the food industry, agriculture and marketing practices.
• Eat at home. In 1900, two percent of meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010, 50 percent were eaten away from home. One in five eat breakfast from McDonald's. Family meals happen about three times a week, last less than 20 minutes, and are spent watching television or texting while each family member eats a different microwaved "food" made in a different factory. We complain of not having enough time to cook, but Americans spend more time watching cooking on The Food Network, than actually preparing their own meals.
• Eat a real breakfast. This is a critical life skill we must reclaim and teach our children. Kids (and adults) who eat breakfast are thinner and smarter. Think real, whole protein-rich food to power up the brain and metabolism for the day.
• Eat together. No matter how modest the meal, create a special place to sit down together, and set the table with care and respect. Family meals are a time for empathy and generosity, a time to nourish and communicate. Research shows that children who have regular meals with their parents do better in every way -- from better grades to healthier relationships to staying out of trouble, and are 42 percent less likely to drink, 50 percent less likely to smoke and 66 percent less likely to smoke pot. Regular family dinners protect girls from bulimia, anorexia and diet pills. Family dinners reduce the incidence of childhood obesity. In a study on household routines and obesity in American preschool-aged children, kids as young as four had a lower risk of obesity if they ate regular family dinners, had enough sleep and didn't watch TV on weekdays. Taking back our family dinners will help us learn how to find and prepare real food quickly and simply, teach our children how to connect, and build security, safety and social skills, meal after meal, day after day.
• Reclaim your kitchen. Throw out foods with high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fats and sugars or fat as the first or second ingredient on the label. Fill your kitchen with real, fresh, whole, local foods whenever possible. Join a community-supported agricultural network to get a cheaper supply of fresh vegetables, or shop at nearby farmer's markets. Read the tips I have shared on how to eat well for less.
• Plant a garden. It's the tastiest, most nutritious, most environmentally friendly food you will ever eat. You can create a small garden in a box on your roof or porch if you have limited space.
• Conserve, compost and recycle. Bring your own shopping bags to the market and recycle your paper, cans, bottles and plastic. Start a compost bucket and use it in your garden or find out where in your community you can share this rich fertilizer.
• Give your children (and yourself) a multivitamin, fish oil and vitamin D every day. It will help to build better brains and better bodies.
Take Back Our Schools
• Help reinvent school lunch programs. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 removes junk food from schools by applying nutrition standards to all foods sold in schools (including vending machines in hallways), and supports access to fresh produce through farm-to-school networks, the creation of school gardens, and the use of local foods. It doesn't solve the void in education for self-care and nutrition, but it is a beginning. Watch the movies "Two Angry Moms" and "Lunch: What are Kids Munching On?" to learn how to take back the lunchroom.
• Support schools as safe zones, where there is access only to foods that promote health and optimal brain functioning.
• Support changes in zoning laws that prevent fast food and junk food outlets from operating next to schools.
• Build school gardens. Teach children about the origins of food and let them experience the sensory delight of real, garden-fresh fruits and vegetables. Jamie Oliver could not get one child in a classroom in West Virginia to identify one vegetable. That is national crisis.
• Support the integration of self-care and nutrition curriculum into schools. Work with your local or regional school boards to introduce programs like Mehmet Oz's HealthCorps into schools around the country.
• Bring back basic cooking skills to schools as part of a curriculum that includes essential life tools.
• Bring back mandatory physical education programs into schools. Physical activity has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, improve cognitive performance and stimulate BDNF production (like miracle grow for brain cells) that increases the number and connections between brain cells.
Remember childhood obesity is not the only risk of poor diet. Kids with bigger bellies have smaller brains. The insults of poor diet and lack of activity have staggering implications for our children and their health and cognitive abilities. But we have the knowledge and capacity to take back our homes and our schools and create healthier, smarter, fitter children.
To learn more about how we can create a healthy food environment for our children, please visit www.drhyman.com.
Now I'd like to hear from you ...
What do you think of the nutrition crisis facing children today? Do you believe effects their ability to live and learn?
Do you view the school lunch program and nutrition education as a problem in this country? What are the problems and what could we do to change it?
What strategies have you implemented in your family to take back your home and take back our schools? How have they worked?
Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
(i) McCann, D., Barrett, A., Cooper, A., et al. 2007. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 370(9598): 1560-7.
(ii) Pelsser, L.M., Frankena, K., Toorman, J., et al. 2011. Effects of a restricted elimination diet on the behaviour of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (INCA study): A randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 377(9764):494-503.
(iii) Gesch, C.B., Hammond, S.M., Hampson, S.E., et al. 2002. Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners. Randomised, placebo-controlled trial. Br J Psychiatry. 181: 22-8.
Mark Hyman, M.D. is a practicing physician, founder of The UltraWellness Center, a four-time New York Times bestselling author, and an international leader in the field of Functional Medicine. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on YouTube, become a fan on Facebook, and subscribe to his newsletter.