Americans are consumed with calories. But when it comes to kids, the relationship is backwards: Instead of worrying that kids are eating too many calories, we worry that kids aren't eating enough.
You've probably heard some of the furor over the new school lunch rules because of a video parody made by students in Kansas claiming they're hungry.
New guidelines, passed by Congress in 2010 and in effect since the beginning of this school year, limit school cafeterias to serving lunches containing 750 to 850 calories for high school students and 550 to 650 calories for elementary students.
To me, it doesn't sound like these calorie restrictions are enough to cause starvation-like conditions, but the Kansas argument is that these kids do farm work before school and sports after school; they need more food. Perhaps they do (I've never done farm work or played football).
As a sociologist who helps parents teach their kids to eat right, I can safely say that the feeling that kids need more food isn't restricted to these Kansas kids. In fact, lots of everyday, middle-class parents are concerned that their children are hungry.
I recently conducted an Internet survey of my readers to assess their feeding concerns: Topping the list was getting kids to eat more food, especially getting them to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Admittedly, this was an unscientific study, but it's telling nonetheless.
I've made the argument before that our culture of nutrition is part of the reason parents inadvertently teach their kids to overeat: The pressure to get the right nutrients into kids is enormous, and because there's no way of measuring nutrient consumption, parents feel compelled to push ever more food into their kids'' mouths. Pediatricians even sometimes make the situation worse.
We shouldn't be surprised that when we spend the first years of our kids' lives telling them to eat more that they have to spend the rest of their lives figuring out how to eat less.
These are the facts everyone knows: 30% of our kids are overweight or obese. 80% of people who were overweight at ages 10-15 are obese at 25. Conditions leading to heart disease now start in childhood. And, for the first time in history, we're raising a generation of kids who may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Still, I'm sympathetic to the Kansas teachers who worry that their school kids are hungry, even though it's possible that their real complaint is about the government, not about the amount of food everyone's plates.
Of course, one of the solutions would be for the kids to actually eat the food they've been provided. That's another habits problem. These kids have been taught that chips and soda are palatable, fruits and vegetables are not. So they leave the broccoli on their plates and then go out to purchase junk (see the video if you don't believe me).
How much kids need to eat is something we need to take seriously. But as the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently pointed out, there's no reason to feed every kid like a linebacker. For most kids, the 850 calorie limit is more than they already eat for lunch, on average. Eating like a linebacker is a habit that lasts for lifetime.
© 2012 Dina R. Rose author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.