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Eco Etiquette: My Friend Feeds Her Toddler Junk Food

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

My good friend and I have toddlers around the same age (my son is 18 months). Lately, every time we get together for a play date, my friend is letting her daughter eat junk. One time it was Cheetos, the next time it was Twizzlers... and this was at 10 o'clock in the morning! I'm super into healthy and organic, and I don't expect everyone to be like me, but this is ridiculous. Should I say something?

-Lizzie

I don't get it: What is the point of letting an 18-month-old eat this kind of garbage? Personally, I don't think there is ever a worthwhile reason for feeding a child (or an adult, for that matter) packaged, processed junk food, but a toddler doesn't even know the difference. At that tender age, you have complete control; all that's in the realm of your child's taste buds is what you choose to feed her.

My 13-month-old, for instance, has never had sugar, save for a few shmushy bites of a homemade chocolate cupcake at her first birthday party. The other day, I didn't realize I had bought the vanilla, sweetened version of the plain whole milk yogurt she normally eats. She took one spoonful, looked at me strangely, then spit it out in disgust.

That's now, of course. The real challenge, I know, will come later, when she arrives bouncing off the school bus from second grade with the telltale ring of orange around her lips after mooching Flaming Hot Cheetos from her buddies on the playground. Why start that struggle earlier than I have to?

Struggle, indeed: The latest scientific evidence shows that what we feed our children from the earliest age profoundly affects their tastes and diet later in life. Dr. Alan Greene, clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and author of Feeding Baby Green, calls this nutritional intelligence -- the innate ability to recognize healthy food choices.

Researchers have shown that developing this all-important knowledge begins as early as in utero. A study in The Journal of Physiology, for instance, revealed that the offspring of pregnant and nursing animals that were fed healthy food tended to choose those foods as adults. The offspring of animals fed junk food, on the other hand, were more likely to eat junk. Not surprisingly, they were also significantly more likely to be fat.

So your friend isn't just letting her daughter indulge; she's setting her up for a lifetime of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And let's not forget about the eye-opening research of late regarding artificial food colors (linked to ADHD), food additives like monosodium glutamate (also linked to obesity), and the genetically modified commodity crops like corn and soy that are found in nearly every junk food (linked to life-threatening food allergies).

Knowing this, should you say something to your friend? In the early days of this column, I may have advised against it, encouraging you to instead lead by example and hope that your friend seeing your own child's healthy treats would spark a conversation about bigger picture issues like childhood obesity and the environmental implications of processed foods.

But you know what? That doesn't work.

In the past few months, I've started revising my view of eco etiquette. I've come to realize that leading by example works when you're talking about showing off a cool new reusable water bottle, but sadly, not for problems this monumental. When you try to be subtle, people just miss the message.

And we need messengers, perhaps now more than ever before in American history. We can't wait for the media to tell us that childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years. We need to ask other parents at our children's schools why the US is spending billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize junk food. Most importantly, we can't worry about hurting a loved one's feelings when it comes to sharing knowledge that could save them from ill health and heartache not that far down the road.

That doesn't mean you can't be a skilled messenger, of course. No mother, after all, likes hearing from another mother that she's bad at mothering. So when dealing with your junk-food-peddling friend, I suggest you trade in a frontal attack for something that any mother could relate to: One mother confiding in another.

"You know, when I think about giving little [Logan, Jayzee, Noah] the stuff we had fun eating growing up, I just think about all the studies connecting junk food to childhood obesity, diabetes, cancer and more, and then I think maybe we owe our kids more than that. Don't you struggle with it, too?"

Then pray for a rational answer.

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