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Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum Headshot

Dining in Disneyland: Not the Happiest Food on Earth

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DISNEYLAND
John Sones Singing Bowl Media via Getty Images

The sign says, "The Happiest Place on Earth," and I get it. You certainly get a happy vibe when you walk through the gates of Disneyland. The people are kind, patient, and completely accommodating. The grass could not be greener, the smiles and laughter more copious, or the rides more engaging, ingenious, or fun. People are smiling, running around, and having fun. It's Disneyland. And yet, on a recent visit with my son, we found more than a few things to be unhappy about. Having devoted my career to educating and empowering people about taking care of themselves, I am particularly sensitive to issues involving a healthful lifestyle. I am the person who asks a waiter to put the sauce on the side, or who grills the waiter about how the food is prepared to ensure that it is not saturated in fat or doused in salt. As a cardiologist, I can't just see the children playing and having fun at Disneyland. I can't help but notice, to the point of distraction, the food choices the park is offering, and the food choices the people are making.

I have noticed a shift in the collective consciousness toward health, and I do believe that in many ways, people are becoming more aware that they need to eat differently to be healthy. However, we have a long way to go. As Americans, we have been conditioned to believe, through marketing and advertisements, that certain foods are good for us, even though they have been part of the reason for the increase in obesity in this country. Foods like smoothies, energy bars and drinks and trail mixes often laden with calories and sugars, have given consumers the perception of being healthy, and become especially more appealing with a Disney character's face on the package.

Certainly, this is not just an issue at Disneyland, but it is one of the reasons for the obesity epidemic, and to me, Disneyland was a microcosm of the problem. So even though my son and I were on vacation, I continued to be a cardiologist, and the truth is, you can't really find a healthy meal at Disneyland, no matter how hard you try. Trust me, because we tried.

I had a difficult time finding anything for my son and I to eat. Even the salads were topped with dressing so sweet it might as well have been categorized as dessert. It's one thing to indulge a bit with foods that are worthwhile, but this stuff? No thank you. Grease, sugar, and salt were the main ingredients, and that's no recipe for enjoying a happy and energetic day in a theme park. I try to show my son, by example, how to make good food choices, and instill habits that will teach him how to best nourish himself throughout his life. Perhaps I overdid it a bit, or maybe he was just being his naturally blunt self (like many children) when he proclaimed that there was no healthy food in the whole park. We finally settled on popcorn (saturated in butter, probably made with trans fats), found some yogurt and fruit, and I eventually landed on a Portobello mushroom vegetarian sandwich. I almost celebrated, until I opened up the bread to find a creamy, sticky spread on the whole wheat roll, soaking the limp veggies in globs of fat. Was it some sort of cheese spread? Some type of flavored mayonnaise or salad dressing? They were so close... and yet so far.

Maybe it was just the park, I thought, as we wandered past the scent of churros topped with cinnamon, the aroma of French fries, the sticky sweet smell of cotton candy. But even in Downtown Disney, which contained more mainstream restaurants right outside the park, I realized that it wasn't going to be easy to find healthful options. Finally, after much searching, we scored with salad and hummus, flat bread, and fish. I was at ease until I read the ingredients on the menu. All of the Mediterranean-style food was made with butter, whipped with cheese, and immersed and swimming in a garlic butter sauce.

Vacations are about indulgence. I get that. And Disneyland in particular is about having fun and cutting loose a bit. Indulgence is the expectation. You are supposed to find your inner child and pretend that sugar is the happiest food on earth. Perhaps you are supposed to ignore your health, just as you are supposed to ignore the huge lines. As a doctor, however, I cannot recommend this particular "prescription."

As I watched my son from a distance playing Xbox next to a 100-pound 8-year-old boy, I wondered if either of them noticed the difference in their sizes. Then I saw the little boy's mother lovingly hand her son a bag of potato chips. Parents who bring their children to Disneyland want to make their kids happy, including giving them the food and snacks that they want and enjoy. That includes letting them indulge on everything that is unhealthy. I get that, too. The problem is, children only know what they are taught. I think it is hard to explain to a child, "These yummy snacks are really bad for you, but I am going to give them to you anyway because it is Disneyland." Where is the line? I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I feel compelled to ask the question.

We left, grabbing a bottle of water on the way out, weaving our way through the huge lines, and decided it was time to call it a day. But on the way out, we were sure to snap a picture with Mickey. We were at Disneyland, after all.

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