Column by Carrie Burdzinski.
Exclusive to STR
Yesterday while simultaneously eating lunch, working on a craft project, and solving a Sudoku puzzle, I turned on the TV for additional background stimulation. The program happened to be a children’s sitcom along the lines of “Hannah Montana.” As such, the commercials advertised toys, video games, and junk snacks popular among school-aged children.
One of the commercials showed a girl arriving home from school, opening the refrigerator, taking out a massive piece of layer cake, and then standing in deep contemplation with an expression of uncertainty and hesitation on her face. Her body language likewise indicated fear and consternation, as though she was engaged in making a life-or-death decision. The girl repeated the same agonizing deliberation process while examining an apple. Her mother watched the whole ordeal with grave concern.
I thought this was a public service ad for eating disorders awareness. I nearly cheered with passionate encouragement, “Eat the cake!,” eagerly hoping to see the girl enjoying cake and being hugged by her relieved mother. This would have made an inspiring ad from The Foundation for a Better Life: “Good body image: pass it on.”
But alas! The girl sighs, puts away the cake, chooses the apple, and assumes an air of righteousness. Her mother smiles in smug satisfaction. A narrator’s voice drones in an ominous, foreboding tone, “EAT RIGHT.”
In the next scene a boy lollygags on the couch, whining that he is “bored.” His father looks at him sternly. The boy’s fear of displeasing his father compels him to get up, go outside, and ride his bike. The boy is rewarded by his father’s proud, beaming smile. The narrator commands, “GET ACTIVE.”
This commercial is part of a new government campaign called We Can! Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition . Their website includes a downloadable, colorful U R What U Eat poster, containing poorly drawn cartoon representations of foods kids “should” eat (green for GO!), may eat in moderation (yellow for SLOW!), and must avoid like their lives depend on it (red for WHOA!).
Now, one might ask, isn’t this message well-suited and timely? Three quarters of Americans are overweight, and the preponderance of obesity and related diseases has reached epidemic proportions. If we concede that the government should be involved in health care (and I don’t), should not that role involve marketing campaigns aimed at reducing a staggering and costly public health crisis?
Although we must ultimately protest the existence of government on ethical grounds, it can be instructive to examine practical examples of government programs that do more harm than good. The We Can! campaign is one such blunder.
As with all government propaganda, fear, guilt, and authority are used in potent combination to influence and control children through the We Can! campaign. The serious demeanor of the cake-fearing girl in the commercial, along with her mother’s watchful eye, inflates the importance of an after-school snack choice to the level of a grave moral crisis. A father’s cross expression produces enough guilt to compel his son to exercise. The commercial successfully convinces children that good little girls and boys ought to be very concerned with their health so as not to disappoint their parents. Combined with brainwashed parents who refer to rich foods as “sinful,” “guilty indulgences,” food and weight issues become intertwined with and ultimately inseparable from morality. According to We Can! dogma, the degree to which one eats “healthy” foods and engages in “healthy” behaviors is the degree of one’s virtue.
Now that children are successfully convinced that food and exercise choices are dire matters, the next step in the indoctrination process is to use public schools to instill the official health guidelines.
I vividly recall attending an anti-obesity assembly as a first grade student in public school. (As a second grader in this same school, I was made to write anti-Saddam poetry and was rewarded with the “honor” of reading it to soldiers during the Gulf War.) The health assembly presenter—a great, powerful, omniscient wizard also known as an adult—specifically told the students that we should not eat at McDonald's. I still remember his exact quote: “If you eat too much McDonald’s, you will get fat.” After the assembly, our teacher said to the whole class that she wished student Geoffrey had been at school that day to hear the talk. Geoffrey was the largest kid in our grade and was definitely overfat. “He most certainly should not be eating fat,” the teacher said.
As most children seek to please their parents and teachers, they come to accept the notion that the path to virtue involves making healthy choices, and that those healthy choices consist of eating only low-calorie, low-fat food (even when one’s body is trying to grow), and engaging in chronic cardiovascular exercise (even when one’s body needs to rest).
Consider the harmful consequences of these inaccurate government-backed health edicts. First, children accept the false indication that eating one piece of cake or one fast food meal magically leads to immediate “fatness.” In reality, the caloric content of a typical McDonald’s meal is not particularly high. Second, children accept and internalize the false implication, presented as unquestionable metaphysical fact, that being “fat” is “bad.” In reality, a certain amount of dietary and body fat is needed for vitamin and mineral absorption, hormone synthesis, immunity, skin and hair health, menstruation, neurotransmission, and mood stabilization. Low-fat diets combined with chronic cardio literally kill.
As a college instructor, I am exposed to many young people who are the victims of following government health doctrine. Every semester I counsel students seeking advice for health and personal concerns. I have yet to meet a student who is not vehemently convinced that caloric restriction, low-fat dieting, and endurance exercise are healthy undertakings. While a person may be no worse for the wear for avoiding fast food, consider the more significant and disturbing context of their fears. The inaccurate EAT HEALTHY message has resulted in formerly happy, vibrant first graders being too terrified to eat—in the name of virtue. An entire generation of young adults cannot enjoy something so basic as a birthday celebration without frantically calculating fat, cholesterol, and fiber intake in a piece of cake. Yet this troubling phenomenon is the logical result of fear-based, authoritarian, inaccurate government health decrees masquerading as moral goodness.
Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to attempt to prove a direct correlation between government health campaigns and the onset of eating disorders, some unlikely allies have recognized the dangers of mixing government with health. Several eating disorder coalitions have critiqued Michelle Obama and her Let’s Move! obesity campaign for promoting unhealthy weight-loss ideas aimed at children. Further, there is abundant evidence that subclinical nutritional deficiencies (brought on by following the government guidelines?) lead to neurodegeneration, body chemistry depletion, changes in appetite, and mood dysregulation. Based on my background in cellular biology, I am firmly convinced that strict adherence to conventional government health dogma leads to long-term, serious health problems.
It could be argued that in a free market, erroneous and potentially damaging health information would still exist. But people would at least have access to contrasting viewpoints and be informed enough to decide for themselves what the best health options are for their families. Because of its unlimited funding and the argument from authority, the government maintains a monopoly on health research and information. Alternative (and potentially superior) ideas are effectively censored. First, lobbyists, agribusinesses, and pharmaceutical corporations act in collusion with government entities to influence research results. Next, via its various regulatory agencies, the government launches strawman smear campaigns against opposing health ideas before the public can evaluate their merits. The Paleolithic diet cannot be used to treat obesity because it does not meet USDA Food Pyramid guidelines. Zinc cannot be used to treat anorexia because only antidepressant drugs are approved to treat disease. Amino acid therapy cannot be used treat binge eating because only MDs licensed by the State Medical Board are permitted to evaluate patients. One must wonder why, if its health theories are accurate, the government must resort to scare tactics and legalized monopoly to influence public opinion. Finally, the government indoctrinates unsuspecting children and their parents with unsound health advice via Saturday morning cartoons. This powerfully effective mind control makes a deadly recipe for health disaster.
By combining the unlimited funding of state research, media campaigns that appeal to fear and guilt, and the authority of power to promote inaccurate health information, the government is actively harming children. The entity that professes concern for children’s health and welfare is the very source and cause of health crises it claims to avert.