Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity

Guess what? There's a one-ingredient recipe for healthier kids


We're fat. Really fat. And it's not just us—it's our kids, too. Have you seen them? They're enormous.

According to the mantra of obesity experts, however, it's much like Robin Williams (correctly) told Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting: It's not your fault.

No, it's not your fault, it's not our fault, it's not their fault. Unless "they" are restaurateurs, in which case it is their fault. That's especially true for chain restaurants—the ones selling McAnything, blooming onions, and the like. They're killing us by the greasy mouthful.

And because it's their fault, these restaurateurs, we must give them their due regulatory dickens. Help is here, America. Trans fat bans. Menu-labeling here, there, and everywhere. More help is on the way, too. Caffeine and sugar and salt be gone. It's for the children.

In some alternate universe, one that actually assigns blame to deserving people, it might be your fault, not theirs. Maybe it is your fault your kids are fat, since you feed them. Maybe the food that parents supply to their kids—and demand restaurants feed their kids—is making the kids fat. Which means parents need to do a better job of making sure their own kids eat healthy, and get some exercise.

Wouldn't that be a refreshing message?

Cornell University marketing professor Brian Wansink, who heads the school's Food and Brand Lab and served in the George W. Bush administration as executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, is not in the blame business. He's an Ig Nobel-winning researcher, author of 2006's Mindless Eating, and has been called "one of the world's leading authorities on consumer behavior." Though he doesn't point fingers, Wansink's latest data suggests that our national fixation on blaming the restaurant industry for childhood obesity is misguided.

That conclusion comes from "The Joy of Cooking Too Much," a study co-authored by Wansink and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. In carrying out his research, Wansink and co-author Collin Payne, assistant professor of marketing at New Mexico State University-Las Cruces, relied on the simple premise that people tend to eat about two out of every three meals at home.

To learn whether home cooking might be a chief culprit behind America's portliness, Wansink and Payne pored over seven decades of The Joy of Cooking, one of America's most popular and durable cookbooks. After identifying recipes for 18 foods that had appeared in each edition of the book, the authors examined the calorie counts and serving sizes for those food over the years.

"If you look at all the common recipes, their calories and serving sizes, there's about a 43% increase," Wansink told Reason. "About two-thirds can be attributed to ingredients—more butter, more sugar, more use of sauces, nuts, and raisins—but the other third can be attributed to increases in portion size.

"The same pie that was to be cut in eight pieces in 1937? The Joy of Cooking now recommends you cut it into 6 pieces."

Sounds perfectly sensible. But aren't cookbooks just responding to increased restaurant portion sizes, thus putting the blame back on restaurateurs? Not quite. "A lot of the increases in calorie and serving sizes we started seeing in cookbooks before we saw them in restaurants," Wansink said. "Our penchant for larger servings started in the home and then moved to the restaurant."

But how might Wansink's argument go over with parents—and other food and nutrition experts? That his book Mindless Eating earned kudos from such divergent sources as John Stossel, who featured Wansink's work on 20/20, and the holy trinity of unholy food nannies—Marion Nestle, Kelly Brownell, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest—showed reason for hope.

Last month Wansink sat on a panel on ways to raise a healthy eater

At the annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach last month, Wansink sat on a panel entitled Beyond Chicken Nuggets: How to Raise a Healthy Eater. In addition to Wansink, the panel featured food celebrities Rachael Ray and Tom Colicchio, South Beach Diet inventor Dr. Arthur Agatston, cookbook author (and wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld) Jessica Seinfeld, and moderator Tara Parker-Pope, wellness columnist for The New York Times.

On its face, a panel featuring a daytime talk-show host, high-end restaurateur and head judge on Bravo's hit Top Chef, diet-book author, uber-rich foodie mom, and New York Times writer wouldn't appear to pose any danger to the restaurants-make-us-fat myth. (This year's panel at least had better myth-busting potential than last year's, which featured celebrity chefs—and torrid food nannies—Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters.)

But the overwhelming message of the panel was that parents—not the government or restaurants—are ultimately responsible for what their kids eat.

"We have to take some responsibility for the foods we bring into the home," said Parker-Pope.

Taking responsibility often means, in the context of home cooking and lunch-sack packing, a healthy serving of chicanery.

"I advocate lying to children," Parker-Pope declared.

Lying might mean mixing whole-wheat pasta in with white-wheat pasta, declared the chipper Ray, in a husky Kathleen Turner voice.

But lying isn't the only solution. Colicchio advocated cooking with kids, giving them a stake in the meal. And though Wansink has launched a new project that nudges children to make healthier lunchroom choices, he's also a father of two daughters, ages 2 and 4, who openly feeds his kids an eclectic mix of foods: "They're lovers of sushi, vegetables—especially broccoli—foie gras, Diet Coke (when they can steal a sip from me), and McDonald's cheeseburgers and French fries."

Regardless of whether kids love healthy foods or not, argued Colicchio, parents are the gatekeepers to a healthy diet, and must be firm with kids. "If some blob of a thing was sitting on the ground, and you saw your kid pick it up and go to eat it, you'd say, 'No!'" Colicchio said. "And so it's just a matter of thinking about what we're eating and sometimes, just saying, 'No. We're not going to do that.'"

But Colicchio made it clear that this choice is the parent's alone.

"There's a big discussion in some circles, with the Obamas coming in, about getting the nation to eat better," Colicchio said. "But we can't have a bunch of elitist chefs getting preachy and telling the country what they should eat. Fast food is here to stay. But we've got to get fast food makers to understand that there's healthy food out there, and the only way they're going to survive is if they make healthy fast food."

Still, fast food makers have tried time and again to offer healthier foods, with mostly dismal results. Remember the McVeggie Burger? Regional fast-food chains that boasted fewer calories and less fat, like O'Naturals in Boston, never saw their dreams of vast expansion realized. Why?

One reason is that building a better—or healthier—McNugget isn't easy. Seinfeld, for one, must know this. Her deceptively delicious chicken nugget recipe—which features healthy ingredients like flaxseed and pureed broccoli—met withering parental criticism at one popular recipe website.

But what about those menu-labeling and trans fat bans? Aren't those efforts making kids healthier? Again, Wansink says the data doesn't support that conclusion. "They've either been ineffective or disturbingly counterproductive," he says. "All the data we've seen about menu labeling doesn't show a consistent answer at all.

"Trying to change capitalism is a lot of work," he adds, "and it won't work."

Obesity lawsuits aren't the answer either, says Wansink.

"If we believe it's a restaurant that's made our kids fat, we're not going to change, because it's their fault," he says. "We're not going to arrest the control we do have as parents. We have the perfect justification: it's not our fault. That's where it really becomes dangerous. These suits obscure the difference we can make in our own lives right now."

That difference starts and ends with parents. If this panel's all-star cast can agree that parents hold the key to their own kids' healthy eating, then the debate over childhood obesity might just be entering a healthy new chapter.

Baylen Linnekin is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He blogs at Crispy on the Outside.


NEXT: Sweet Science

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  1. First!!!


  2. its everyone elses fault but our own eh!. lets blame mcd’s Bk applebees etc for us not taking pride in ourselves. look if you are heavy you either eat to much, which you can easily controll, or have a hormone/genetic componet to it. lets face it some people will never be fat no matter how big of a pig they are. and some fat people eat like a rabbit and gain weight. Genetics plays a huge role i think you will find in the next few years. humans are genetically predisposed to gain weight, blame the hunter gatherer feast/ famine eveloution. look, just be healthy, be responsible for yourself and if you are happy and healthy it does not matter if you weight 100 or 200. there are very healthy heavy people and there are very sick skinny people.

  3. If seeing a Chili’s commercial doesn’t make you want to vomit, you’re probably a fat fuck already.

  4. If seeing Rachel Ray doesn’t make you want to vomit, you’re eyes are probably retarded.

  5. “Genetics plays a huge role i think you will find in the next few years…there are very healthy heavy people and there are very sick skinny people.”

    So true. I saw a piece on a marathon runner who was considered obese by the medical weight charts. Short and stocky.

    His body type was due to his genetic ancestors, who were Poles, I think, from Gdansk on the Baltic Sea. Or he could have been Estonian.

  6. People who eat at chain restaurants deserve whatever they get. Applebee’s is an abomination.

  7. “If seeing Rachel Ray doesn’t make you want to vomit, you’re eyes are probably retarded.”

    She had very perky tits, back in the day

  8. Unproofread cut n’ paste substitution jokes are retarded.

  9. The popularity spike of Rachel Ray is when the last hope for America faded in my heart.

  10. I couldn’t finish the article. There is nothing new in it. If you believe that people are indeed responsible for their own actions, blaming restaurants, saturday morning cartoons, Madison Avenue etc. is just a fucking cop-out.

    I’ve known it for about 45 years (I’m 53). I smoke cancer sticks. Not once did a tobacco executive drag me off the street and force me to inhale nicotine imbued smoke. Not once was I ever under the impression that coffin nails are anything but harmful.

    Blaming others for your own behavior is an excuse that we don’t accept from three year olds.

  11. If seeing Rachel Ray doesn’t make you want to vomit, you’re eyes are probably retarded.

    Being blind wouldn’t protect you if you still had ears.

    in a husky Kathleen Turner voice

    Romancing the Stone Kathleen Turner or today’s Kathleen Turner? It’s kind of significant.

  12. Yo, fuck Warty’s opinion!

    I’m not what anyone would call fat, but I love Chili’s and their commercials.

    I want my babyback babyback babyback…Chili’s….babyback ribs…barbeque sauce.

  13. Try our baby-back ribs, with our all-new bacon chipotle cheese sauce!

  14. Hm…the unnecessary hyphen makes baby back ribs seem way more sinister than they are.

  15. Holy shit that sounds friggin awesome. I love bacon, chipotle, and cheese! I’m one of those assholes that can eat whatever I want. I’m 6′ tall, 168lbs. Suck it, bitches.

  16. Episiarch,

    Not Body Heat?

  17. Actually, that does sound pretty tasty.

  18. The Venezuelan Jewish community traces its roots back more than 200 years and has no history of tension with the local population. Before the rise of Hugo Chavez, the Jews were a welcome part of a society known for its warm temperament and amiable disposition, free from the discrimination and anti-Semitic violence in many other countries. Over the last 10 years conditions have worsened dramatically, and although 15,000 still remain, more than half the Jewish population has already fled.

    All of this takes place in the context of anti-capitalist class warfare, in which “enemies of the people” are labeled by the government-controlled media to provide both justification and an outlet for bitter frustration and anger. This strategy was used to great effect in the national socialist movements of the 20th century, where Jews were specifically targeted as “elitist” to subject them to the anger and resentment of collectivist masses.

    With crime exploding to astonishing levels, and disastrous economic policies destroying the middle class, Chavez is applying this same model. He uses his charisma and populist appeal to instill hatred of Jews and capitalists in his supporters, who are mainly from the lower class, the military and those who profit from his power.

    More at:

  19. PL,

    As Epi’s appointed representative, I would think that Romancing the Stone was to refer to the era of Turner-attractiveness and not as a confinement of her attractiveness to a single movie. Body Heat Turner, definitely.

  20. There’s a one-ingredient recipe for healthier kids

    Corn syrup!

  21. Crimes of Passion-era Kathleen Turner?

  22. SugarFree,

    You dare to speak for Episiarch? On film? And on the attractiveness of women? You play a dangerous game indeed.

  23. You dare to speak for Episiarch?

    Oh, I dare! And he wanted me to highlight the shapeliness of her legs in particular.

  24. Ah. Pray tell, what else would Episiarch say were he here amongst us?

  25. I didn’t even read the article, and I’m experiencing an overpowering craving for some deep-fried goose liver on a stick.

  26. P Brooks,

    When the world adopts my Taste Simulator, you can experience that taste or any other, while ingesting some healthy red pepper hummus. Or celery. What you actually eat isn’t terribly relevant.

  27. Pray tell, what else would Episiarch say were he here amongst us?

    Something about narcotics and fucking. I’m sure of it. And he wanted me to “give Rachel Ray hell.”

    I give her all the hell I have, good buddy. All the hell I have.

  28. Over the last 10 years conditions have worsened dramatically, and although 15,000 still remain, more than half the Jewish population has already fled.

    The Jewish community has become rather adept at spotting impending disaster on the horizon…

  29. It is very very sad when I hear things about how children need to be encouraged to exercise. I have even hear recommendations that kids spend a half hour or something walking each day. Kids are supposed to spend 8 hours a day running around outside. The fact that kids need to have time set aside for exercise is horrifying (I have a hard enough time accepting it for myself as an adult).

    I think it is appropriate to blame parents for just about everything about their kids, be it obesity, education, violence or whatever. If you don’t have time to properly raise your kids, don’t have them. That’s why God invented contraception and abortion.

  30. Grizzlebee’s! You’ll wish you had less fun!

  31. hey i think Rachel Ray is still pretty darn sexy. If you guys dont want her, i will take her. all she has to do is cook naked with only an apron on. I can take the perky and the querky, i actually like that. but she does talk an awful lot, lol

  32. If you don’t have time to properly raise your kids, don’t have them.

    I want to agree with the sentiment, but…

    Most of my calories were burned when I was running around doing stuff with little/no parental supervision. I think it’s the OVERparenting (overscheduling, refusal to let little Billy out on the street for 5 minutes lest he be snatched away by some predator, etc.) that’s a big percentage of the problem. All that’s left for little Billy during his time between piano lessons and tutoring is sitting his fat ass down in front of the Wii.

  33. T—i | March 31, 2009, 3:52pm | #


    Don’t you mean “dipshit,” dipshit?

  34. the genetics/metabolism argument is bullshit. some people may have to work harder, but the body is an engine with calories as fuel. pretty simple concept.

    watch that biggest loser show on TV. they get really fat people, put them on a diet and put them in the gym. miraculously they ALL lose weight. nobody’s genes get in the way.

    people are fat because they eat too much and do too little.

  35. It is very very sad when I hear things about how children need to be encouraged to exercise. I have even hear recommendations that kids spend a half hour or something walking each day.

    I remember the good old days; when I was a kid, my mom, and my friends’ moms, practically had to set traps to capture us in order to get us inside at night.

    Apparently, that’s not how it works, nowadays.

  36. Healthy weight is a simple equation:

    Calories In = Calories Out

    If one side is off balance, unhealthness ensues…

  37. I think Rachel Ray is not bad looking. It’s when she opens her fucking mouth– that’s a deal breaker. Sort of like Fran Drescher. But in Drescher’s case, I wouldn’t not do her. I’d just reach for the ball gag.

  38. “but she does talk an awful lot, lol”

    Just make certain to always keep her mouth full.

  39. “Don’t you mean “dipshit,” dipshit?”

    He’s really gone down hill fast.

  40. So, what makes you fat?

    Hint: It’s not fat.

    Man Boobs and Wheat Bellies

    Gary Taubes, author of “Good Calories, Bad Calories”, responded to critics in Reason’s March 2003 issue.

    In a nutshell, if you don’t want to be fat and/or unhealthy:

    1) Don’t eat crap (starches, sugars, refined/processed junk).

    2) Eat real food, with enough good fats to feel satisfied.

    3) Remember that what you eat (and don’t eat) will determine your weight and health far more than any amount of exercise (or lack thereof):

    “Eating right makes you look good. Working out makes you look good naked.”

  41. “Eating right makes you look good. Working out makes you look good naked.”

    And eating naked can be loads of fun!

  42. Does anybody else want to see Padma set the chefs to a quickfire challenge to make a creative and adventurous dish out of Rachel Ray?

  43. I remember before McDonalds went “healthy”. I could buy a couple of sandwitches and get my recommended calorie intake for that meal. Now I’ve got to add fries and coke to that to get the same calorie intake. Pratically speaking, the only difference is the increase in price.

  44. Where were all of the fat widdle kiddies back in the 1960s when EVERY breakfast cereal had SUGAR quite prominently in their names?

  45. Very excellent point, Wyatt. Furthermore, where was all the childhood lung cancer when every adult in our midst smoked everywhere during waking hours?

    I concur with the others who point out that our childhoods were spent outdoors, exercising almost non-stop. I’m horrified by all the overparenting. In my day (reaching for my cane now)…in my day, we walked to school. We all did. A whole mile or so. Anyone who got dropped off by car was ridiculed (unless their leg was broken).

    Further, we were fed at mealtimes and only at mealtimes. And portions were limited. There was only one glass of KoolAid per kid. Only one cup of potatoes. Only one piece of cake, etc. Whining or resisting got us sent to our rooms or worse.

    Obesity was once a bonafide rarity. There were very few chubby kids.

    And…I’m not defending food policing, but restaurant portions were smaller too. There was no Jumbo french fry and Double Quarter Pounder.

    Plus, we was po.

    Anyway, I think obesity is a product of too much, of bounty and of plenty. End food subsidies now.

  46. Another reason not mentioned: more women working means fewer home-cooked meals for everyone. And Moms tend not to make deep-fried onions or bacon-cheese sauces, etc. In fact, many women are just not very good cooks, and if the food isn’t very good, you tend to eat less of it. Back then a restaurant meal was a once or twice a month treat.

    Which I think is yet another reason for the obesity epidemic: food is just tastier now than it was 30-40 years ago. Restaurant food is (on average) tastier. There is a far greater variety of snack foods available. When I was a kid it was potato chips, BBQ-flavored chips, Fritos, and cheese puffs. Now there’s a 20-foot section of every supermarket aisle with a staggering variety.

    Also, I think that something happened in the ’70s that set things off. It may have been all the health advice to avoid fats. Unfortunately, fats are needed to feel sated, so I think people compensated by eating more carbs.

  47. ‘If you don’t have time to properly raise your kids, don’t have them. That’s why God invented contraception and abortion.’

    If you don’t know how to raise your kids, kill them. Also cuts down on your food budget.

  48. PapayaSF
    if the food isn’t very good, you tend to eat less of it.

    Sorry, guy; I’ve often eaten too much bad food trying to get satisfied.

  49. The comment about healthy fast food restaurants reminded me of a chain that thrived for a while in Charlotte back in the 1980’s. “D’Lites” had good, reasonably healthy fast food and was quite popular, drawing large crowds, until financial problems developed due to their expanding too fast. There was certainly a market for healthier fast food, but other factors may have prevented the spread of such restaurants. (It should be noted, however, that the D’Lites menu did not have any veggieburgers or the like – but they used lower fat meat, made low fat – but still good – french fries, frozen yogurt instead of frozen ice cream, etc.)

  50. It’s ridiculous to hold restaurants accountable for your own lack of control. I say this as a Pudgy American (there, I said it).

    I do, however, blame McDonald’s for not truly caring about me as a person and my happiness by not selling their hash browns outside of their breakfast menu.

  51. all she has to do is cook naked with only an apron on.

    Is wanting your girl to have third degree burns some kind of fetish?

    If so, I’ll pass. I will take you up on some of that bacon chipotle cheese sauce though (on rice cakes to make it healthy).

  52. When you talk about kids, it always comes back to the parents. I live in the affluent section of a college town Only one kid in my children’s classes could be called fat and she is certainly not obese. We raise our kids well whether it education, nutrition or whatever.

    I often wonder what it would take to raise fat kids. The only way we could stop our kids from exercising would be to tie them up.

  53. @J sub D – I couldn’t agree more. I feel hostile towards people who blame restaurants for america’s obesity problem.
    What kind of Capitalist are you, Linnekin? Restaurants serve enormous portions because consumers DEMAND enormous portions. If we all ate like rabbits, restaurants would serve rabbit portions. It’s our own fault for supporting them in killing us.

  54. Mixing whole wheat pasta with regular? There is no such thing as “whole wheat pasta”. Pasta is made from semolina, the hardest part of the wheat kernel. Anything else is just noodles.

  55. Obesity is a myth! The fat-ish people you see are just fluffy and big boned. Don’t listen to those vegan jihadist health nuts. Visit

  56. I have three daughters, now 22, 24, and 26 who have never been on a diet. Our “fast food” restaurant was El Pollo Loco, or Burger King. We very rarely ate at McDonalds except for breakfast.

    As a former Weight Watchers group leader, after losing 36 pounds in 16 weeks, I learned how to cook healthy and my children never developed a taste for salt, sugar or deep fried foods. It was forced healthy eating, just common sense.

    But it takes time to shop and cook and parents today have very little, especially if they work outside the home.

    Family “dinners” are a thing of the past and eating on the run is never as enjoyable, or as healthy, as a sit-down meal.

    Overweight children and adults is, most certainly not the “fault” of fast food restaurants, but FFR’s are what the American public wants. No matter what regulations the government tries to enforce, NO government can legislate the amount of TIME it takes to shop, cook and eat a healthy family meal.

    It is not a matter of “fault”, it is and always has been a matter of choice!

  57. Of course, parents are responsible.

    The government should spend its time and efforts educating Americans about the definition of “personal responsibility,” but, first, it must get over its confusion between “responsibility” and “blame”.

  58. The fault is 100% the parents fault. Children of a certain age can only eat what’s placed in front of them or dine out where they’re taken. No one, I mean no one needs to ask a child for input as to what or where they want to eat. They’ll eat what’s placed on the table or they’ll starve. Eventually they’ll get it. I can’t tolerate the society that supports this kind of discussion – as if a restaurateur is at fault! Don’t eat there, close them down by your lack of patronage, do something if you don’t like it. It is only a short while before BHO takes the food industry over anyway so eat the good stuff while you can!

  59. Step 1: Stop trying to figure out who is to blame. Stop blaming people. Stop pointing fingers.

    Step 2: Start being FOR health instead of AGAINST obesity.

    Step 3: Stop dealing only in weight. Create an atmosphere of positivity and respect for obese children (and hey, obese adults while you’re at it. Now that you mention it…for everyone).

    Step 4: Support programs that help ALL people understand all aspects of health (food, exercise, water etc.) instead of just focusing on how much they weigh.

    Obese kids (and adults) do not deserve to have war declared on them. Not only is it disrespectful, it’s not ineffectual. Promote health and respect and you’ll see more health and respect in return.

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