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Pizzas are out, yoghurt is in

As the junk food problem becomes acute, 17 US states have legislated changes in school nutrition

Did you know that a single helping of samosa has 25 grams of fat in it, the same as a large slab of butter? A samosa, according to nutritionists, adds around 252 calories to your total calorie intake for the day.

For that matter, one can of Coke contains over 100 calories, the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar. And most of us do not compensate for those calories by eating less, because liquid calories simply do not provide the same feeling of fullness as do solid foods.

The popular vada pav, another deep-fried snack, is also loaded with the wrong kind of calories -- fat calories. One vada pav has 295 calories; you would have to run for 65 minutes to burn those calories off!

‘Junk food’ is the term used to describe unhealthy food, or food with limited nutritional value. These are foods high in salt, sugar, fat or calories and lacking in proteins, vitamins and fibre.

Besides the above-mentioned foods, other major junk foods are salted snack foods, most desserts, candy, gum and carbonated beverages.

Calorie content in your favourite junk food

  • A medium serving of French fries contains 24.7 grams of fat and adds 458 calories to your calorie intake in a day.

  • One 12-inch pizza contains 1,446 calories and 55.6 grams of total fat; a slice contains 181 calories and 7.0 grams of total fat.

  • One McDonald’s Big Mac (regular) hamburger contains 570 calories and 32 grams of fat; one cheeseburger contains 320 calories and 13 grams of fat.

  • A 1.5 oz bar of milk chocolate contains 220 calories.

What does number of calories actually mean?

In simple terms, calories are the amount of energy we put into our bodies to carry out various functions. We must have enough energy (calories) to support growth and development and to reach or maintain a desirable body weight.

An intake of between 1,200 and 1,400 calories per day is considered a low intake. This calorie level is just enough to meet what are called our ‘basal metabolic needs’ -- the calories needed to keep our hearts beating and our internal organs working.

The American Heart Association estimates that the amount of calories children need ranges from 900/day for a one-year-old to 1,800 for a 14–18-year-old girl and 2,200 for a 14–18-year-old boy. 

Sports nutritionist and child counsellor Sejal Mehta (in an article tilted ‘Is your child eating junk food? Beware!’) says: “Junk food harms the system with empty calories. It has no proteins and vitamins. For instance, aerated drinks fill your stomach with carbon dioxide and decay the food in your intestine. The high sugar content slows down the blood circulation in the brain.

“The child feels full and is instantly energised. The energy then dissipates and the child is left lethargic in half-an-hour. S/he then wants more of the stuff, thus causing addiction.”

Junk food risks

There are some startling facts about children and their eating habits in the United States, home to some of the most popular junk food.

According to recent studies, conducted over a 10-year period, the average American child consumes up to 165 calories more than he/she needs each day -- the equivalent of an entire can of soda. The fattest teens take in as many as 1,000 calories more each day than they need -- almost as much as two Big Macs. Researchers also found that between 1999 and 2002, obese 12-17-year-old children took in an average of 678 to 1,017 extra calories a day, amounting to an excess weight gain of 58 pounds (26.36 kg) a year.

“An estimated one in three American kids is either obese -- a step beyond overweight -- or in danger of becoming obese, and one in eight or nine children is actually obese,” says Dr Y Claire Wang, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Latest data from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) further reveals that in the past quarter-century, the proportion of overweight children aged 6-11 has doubled, while the number of overweight adolescents has tripled.

This dramatic rise in obesity has prompted widespread changes throughout the food industry, schools and communities in an effort to prevent the spreading epidemic.

Changes in American schools

In response to childhood obesity, which is considered a national epidemic in the United States, at least 17 states enacted some form of school nutrition legislation in the year 2005, and 11 more approved them in 2006.

In 2005, the state legislature of California passed a law banning junk food and soda sales in schools. Arizona followed suit in July and Illinois in October.

The legislation bans pop (colas), candy, fries and other popular fast foods from school premises. The ban encompasses not just cafeterias but items sold in vending machines, school stores, snack bars or anywhere on the school grounds during the school day, even at fundraising events.

So what are children eating instead? 

In school cafeterias, cereal with low-fat milk, sandwiches made with whole-grain bread, fruit cups offering fresh-cut fruits, salads, yoghurt, juice and low-fat milk have replaced pizza, soft drinks, chilli fries, cheese fries, regular fries and chicken nuggets. Fish is also being recommended in place of processed meat. 

In some schools, vending machines now store pretzels (a baked snack that’s twisted into a unique knot-like shape), several varieties of granola bars (a snack food consisting of nuts and rolled oats mixed with honey, and baked until crispy), small servings of mini chocolate chip cookies, fresh-cut fruit and low-fat milk instead of coke and chips.

Initiatives closer home
In India, schools in certain states like New Delhi have already introduced healthy food in their canteens. The directorate of education in Delhi reports that 133 schools across the state have replaced fast food with ‘healthy food’. Students are now served things like channa (gram), roti-sabzi (chapatti and vegetables),fruit, sandwiches and buttermilk. Good Shepherd Convent in Nungambakkam, Chennai, has also introduced the junk food-free concept on campus.

Some junk food trivia

  • The phrase ‘junk food’ was coined by Michael Jacobson, director of the American Centre for Science in the Public Interest, in 1972.
  • The average American drinks nearly 54 gallons of soft drinks every year, or over a gallon each week.
  • Data from a large federal study indicates that Americans drink nearly one-fourth of their total calories each day, mostly in the form of soft drinks. More than one-third of all the added sugars Americans consume come from soft drinks.
  • One tablespoon of butter gives you 90 calories, while one tablespoon of ghee gives you 115 calories.
  • Any over-cooked food or food that is cooked in intense heat kills nutrition.
  • Most places selling fried snacks re-use and re-heat the same oil over and over again much beyond its smoking point. This causes the formation of unhealthy trans-fatty acids that harm the heart in the long run.

-- Durga Chandran

InfoChange News & Features, April 2007

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