Commentary: A phobia over fat

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If you’ve watched even a quarter or two of a National Football League contest during the last couple seasons, you’ve probably seen an advertisement for the NFL’s “Fuel Up to Play 60” program. It’s a cleverly packaged promotion, launched in conjunction with the National Dairy Council and USDA, to encourage adolescents to become more physically active and adopt healthier dietary habits.

As its mission statement notes, “The program is designed to empower students to lead by making healthy decisions and taking action for change.”

All well and good.

Along with encouragement for elementary and high school kids to get involved in sports, outdoor activities or even just vigorous playtime—important for health and sociological reasons—the program also concentrates heavily on nutrition. In theory, that’s a nice complement to the focus on fitness, because way too many tweens and teens subsist on an utterly atrocious diet.

I see them daily in my other life as a YMCA counselor, and believe me: The older they are, and the more independence (read, spending money) they have, the worse they tend to eat. Soda, snacks and fast-food often comprise their entire day’s diet, and that ain’t good.

So I guess the argument could be made that criticizing the nutritional guidance offered by programs such as Fuel Up to Play 60 is unwarranted and unhelpful. After all, if the guidance offered by the program is even casually observed, many kids are going to end up way better nourished, if not better educated about diet and health.

But here’s the problem. The nutritional advice provided is straight out of the “enlightened” USDA playbook on dietary choices—which means it has a couple of what I consider to be fatal flaws.

One is the de-emphasis on animal foods. Yes, I know we would all do well to add more fruits and vegetables to our daily diets, but does that have to be a zero-sum game? Does the promotion of an “eat more fresh fruits and veggies” mantra have to be accompanied by “never-mention-meat” messaging?

Instead of simply calling it “Meat, Fish and Eggs,” that category (and it’s the last one mentioned, by the way) is called “Protein Foods.” Now, c’mon. What kid is ever going to ask mom or dad as they head out to the supermarket, “Hey—don’t forget my favorite protein foods!”

Is it really necessary to devalue meat and poultry by pretending that they’re just bit players in some generic “protein” category?

To answer my own rhetorical question, No!

Instead, it’s part of a deliberate strategy to “expand” the center of the plate to make room for processed soy protein products masquerading as main-dish entrees. Unfortunately, that creates the idea that anything with protein in it is equal in status, nutritionally speaking.

That’s erroneous and misleading and shouldn’t be part of a healthy eating program that styles itself as being as much about education as it is about nutrition.

Bad advice for kids

Second, there is an inordinate emphasis on avoiding fat in any form whatsoever. That’s not only misguided, it’s downright dangerous for growing kids to develop an unhealthy abhorrence of fat early in life.

For example: The recommendations in the Dairy category include low-fat and fat-free milk; fat-free or reduced-fat cheese; and low-fat yogurt.

Really? The idea is for growing kids, who need fat and cholesterol to build nervous system tissue and support the functioning of various organs, to avoid fat like the cast of The Biggest Loser? That’s as ill-conceived as it gets.

For starters, eating fat does not cause obesity, the avoidance of which is ostensibly the motivation for adults who climb onboard the low-fat bandwagon. In fact, over the last 25 years, we’ve been cutting down dramatically on our overall consumption of fat calories as a percentage of total caloric intake, while during that exact same time period the occurrence of obesity has skyrocketed.

Worse, studies have shown conclusively that people who obsess about consuming fat usually overeat in terms of calories from carbohydrates instead, resulting in not less, but additional weight gain and bodily fat storage.

Worst of all, since when does it make sense to take simple, natural animal food products and then skim, extract and otherwise remove as much of its lipid content as possible? As if the meat, poultry, milk, eggs and cheese produced from food animals are no good, that they need to be heavily processed to (allegedly) make them “healthier.”

And then we turn around and tell Fuel Up to Play 60 participants, “Kids, eat lots of fresh, natural vegetables and fruits! Why? Because they’re wholesome—just like Nature intended them to be!”

Does that incongruity even make sense?

I’ll let you answer that one.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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