Healthy Eating

Habit Zeroes and Why Having Healthy Kids Can be So Difficult

healthy kidsMy uncle used to have a wooden spoon called “Mr. Smack.” My cousins got spanked with it when they were bad, and the rest of the time it scowled down at them from atop the fridge, a menacing warning. I was always surprised at how little it affected their behavior.

A new exhibit at Disney’s Epcot Center sought a more positive approach to changing kids’ behavior: teaching by fun and example.

The “Habit Heroes” exhibit was launched to help address the alarming weight gain among youngsters in the U.S.  Michelle Obama says nearly one in three children in America is overweight or obese.

Earlier this week, Randy wrote a candid post about the challenges of getting healthy kids and helping them to be more active. It’s hard to change their habits. Especially when the “bad” action is enjoyable.

Obviously, the “smack”down doesn’t work. And trying to teach them to care by explaining concepts like “processed,” “calorie count” and “nutrition value” is likely to be met with “Huh? Whatever.”

So it’s easy to see why Disney went a different route: exalting healthy-eating “heroes” and shunning junk food-loving cartoon villains like “Glutton” and “Snacker.”

The Habit Heroes exhibit was shut down within 3 weeks of opening.

What went wrong?

Perhaps Disney could have taken a lesson from the cookie jar: Banished to the very back of the highest cupboard, many a jar has been broken in a child’s hot pursuit of chocolate chip cookies.

Kids can’t resist the forbidden. (Adults can’t either.)

But the exhibit wasn’t ousted because slamming junk food might make kids want it more. It was because of “fat shaming.”

The exhibit was smearing unhealthy eaters more than unhealthy food. Using shame is NOT a productive way to change habits, and children’s psyches are even more fragile than ours.

Further, the exhibit could be trivializing and generalizing the often complex factors involved in weight.

I think Disney had good intentions. For a brand that has been skewing kids’ notions of the body norm for decades, it seems like they were finally trying to do right. Only they invited unrealistic body shapes back to the party. I realize exaggeration is a defining characteristic of cartoons, but this might be a bit much.

And they again linked body shape to moral character. Don’t you think it’s weird how Disney’s heroes are always trim and muscular, while the villains are emaciated or (along with the kind but dim-witted characters) plump? Once again, not productive for helping kids develop confidence in seeking their own ideal body shapes.

Why solving the crisis won’t get easier

Technology as a vehicle for entertainment and education? That’s not going anywhere. And unfortunately it may promote snacking.

I feel our fast-paced lives are also here to stay. So fresh, healthy meals will remain a challenge as parents continue to juggle jobs and community and family.

Then there’s the subliminal damage done by a bazillion dollars worth of junk food advertising aimed at kids.

So what’s the solution, if so many cultural factors are hindering rather than helping kids to eat healthy?

Parents can talk to their kids about how it’s fun and rewarding to eat healthy. They can serve balanced meals and heap fruits and veggies onto their plates. But what if it doesn’t stick? I’ve been watching my little brothers stealthily stuff anything that’s not meat or dessert in the garbage for the last 19 years.

Campaigns like Let’s Move are raising nutrition awareness among the government and school officials. They might put salad bars in schools. But suppose kids keep eating the chicken nuggets and fries? (Or just eat a stew of iceberg lettuce, ranch dressing and croutons, which is what I used to do.)

Let’s Move and similar movements really are significant strides. But I get where Disney and Blue Cross Blue Shield were trying to go with Habit Heroes. They were genuinely trying to come up with a message that would speak to kids… make them want to eat healthy, rather than just making treats a little harder to get.

But Habit Heroes fell short too.

Beyond perpetuating the weird (and dangerous) labeling of body types… Shooting cream puffs with guns? Seriously? If you put a cream puff in my face for 10 minutes, I’ll probably start wanting to eat it. Guns a blazin’ or not.

The best way to teach children about healthy food

According to Slate editorialists and readers in this great forum, the problem of childhood obesity has many causes, and the only way to solve it is to attack on all fronts.

One reader said the solution needs to be fun. Another proposed teaching cognitive control, not by stigmatizing bad choices, but by praising healthy choices and exposing kids to a variety of healthy foods at a young age.

Also, consider that good examples do influence kids. Not just those set by “heroes” — remember the marriage diet? Family members have the biggest influence on each other’s eating habits.

Obviously, the solution to our obesity dilemma will be multi-faceted, and the fewer harmful approaches in the mix, the better.

Epcot plans to reopen Habit Heroes once they’ve revised their approach. What do you think they’ll change? What should they do differently?

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Chelsea Ratcliff

Chelsea Ratcliff

Writer and expert

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