Why is Healthy Food Such a Joke?

I saw a little boy wearing this t-shirt at the airport recently. I know this shirt is supposed to be funny. I get the joke. But on this young boy, who was also very overweight, it seemed almost cruel. And I couldn’t help but wonder: Who bought this shirt for the boy–and what kind of message did it teach him when they bought it? It made me sad.

It also made me angry.

I’m so tired of healthy food being a punchline. And I’m tired of our kids being taught–in obvious and subtle ways–that eating healthy food isn’t cool.

I’m tired of reading children’s books to my kids and finding the inevitable reference to a character who hates broccoli and the uptight mom who feeds it to him. My kids didn’t know they were supposed to hate broccoli.

I’m tired of food marketing that’s bent on convincing kids that they’re only cool if they’ve got a soda in one hand and a Lunchable in the other. And that their friends will think they’re lame if they bring vegetables to a party instead of a box of tacos.

I’m tired of even healthy foods marketed as “tasting as good as junk food!”, as in Oikos yogurt’s new tagline “Too delicious to be nutritious.” Because why would anyone possibly like the taste of nutritious foods?

These messages, jabs, and digs are so pervasive in our culture, a culture in which the top three sources of calories in a child’s diet are desserts, soda, and pizza and where only 1 in 5 kids eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.

Yet we also have one of the highest obesity rates in the world. More than a third of our population is obese. Half of Americans will have diabetes or prediabetes by the year 2020. And children are now getting medication for grown-up conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Guess the joke’s actually on us.

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  1. says

    So funny- I wrote about food snobs on my post today and a lot of commenters are talking about how they’ve been food-shamed for eating healthy food!
    I believe it encouraging discussion about healthy eating and feel passionately about healthy eating for kids and I agree that snarky messages about how junk food is cool doesn’t help us progress as a society towards being more fit.

  2. says

    You totally hit the nail on the head – I was so ticked after reading the book Pinkalicious (a super popular series for young girls) to my daughter where the main character “choking down brussels sprouts” and referring to anything green as “yuck!” I mean, really??

  3. Amy says

    This is so frustrating because I love healthy food. I just started a new job and most people eat in the office in order to have a shorter work days. We have one individual that constantly ridicules us for healthy food choices. She offers to get everyone food wherever she’s running out to but balks at those who say no in lieu of a healthier choices. Amazingly she is the one person in the office on the most medications. It’s just plain crazy!

    • says

      Amy–that does sound frustrating. I’d guess she’s feeling insecure about her own choices and possibly her health and the mocking is a defense mechanism. Perhaps she wants to make a change but doesn’t know where to start–or doesn’t want to change because change is hard. At any rate, we all have to do what’s right for ourselves and it sounds like that’s what you’re doing. Thanks for reading!

  4. says

    Yes, yes, YES! I couldn’t agree more. It is now absolutely ‘a thing’ where people mock you for eating a healthy snack, or look at you funny if you ask for fries at a restaurant without salt, or ask not to have extra butter or oil added to your meal.

    My husband calls me the food prude, even though I’m quite liberal in my nutrition views (for a dietitian… I guess) and would never tell anyone they shouldn’t eat something. And I certainly never give unsolicited nutrition advice… unlike all the non-dietitians out there who have degrees in completely unrelated area. I love when I get lectured about food by one of these non-dietitian ‘experts’.

    These days everyone is a nutrition expert. “I read something online about that” or “I lost 10kgs and here’s what I did”… Gah! Just because you drive over a bridge to work everyday, doesn’t mean you know how to build one, and just because I am an aeroplane passenger at least 10 times a year, doesn’t mean I can pilot a plane.

    Yes, clearly I agree with your very well articulated beef! Refreshing to read, for sure. I actually recently wrote an article about dietary guidelines titled “we don’t make this stuff up for our health”. If you’re interested in reading it: http://www.pieholeblogger.com/2013/05/we-dont-make-this-stuff-up-for-our.html

    • says

      Pie Hole (I realize I don’t see your real name anywhere!)–thanks for the comment. Yes, the unsolicited advice….I try very hard not to do that as well, and am even wary when people ask because either their eyes glaze over or they tell me why I’m wrong. 🙂 Look forward to reading your site. Love the name!

  5. says

    Great post! My 7 year old asked me recently, after gobbling down a bowl of roasted carrots: “Are they really healthy?”. It is so sad that kids do not associate healthy foods with great flavors….. My 4 year old is told in her preschool to finish her “healthy foods” before getting to dessert. Kids do not completely understand what is healthy and what is not and yet they are bombarded by the confusing messages and rules all the time.

    • says

      Natalia–agree. The concept of what’s healthy and what’s not healthy is very confusing. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that making fun of vegetables in books and on TV isn’t it! 🙂

  6. Robin Jingjit says

    What you said about the kid in the book not liking broccoli- yes, yes, yes!!

    Kids get these ideas that food isn’t supposed to be good or kids aren’t supposed to like them- it’s powerful!! They believe these messages.

    My friend complained once that her daughter wasn’t afraid of monsters in a closet until someone read her a book about how she didn’t need to be afraid of them! What a bummer.

  7. says

    Hi Sally

    I am with you on every sentiment of this post. It is sad. Indeed, nothing is funny about the diet-related disease that results from filling up our kids with “cool” foods. I wish for a change a “cool” celebrity would get behind a fruit bowl instead of a soda can.

  8. Sarah L says

    I just picked my 6 year old up from VBS (church day camp). Our family has dealt with reactions to food dyes and artificial sweetners, so I pack her snack every day. Today her teacher told me that [in THREE HOURS] my daughter had to miss out on a cookie at circle time, graham crackers, and brownies (with multicolored frosting) that a parent had brought in for their child’s birthday. She was concerned because my daughter was obviously disappointed, and she thought I might want to pack a treat for her in the future. (Insert judgemental stares here.) I just stood there, so flabbergasted that I literally could not answer her.

    • says

      Sarah–wow, that’s a lot of junk in a short amount of time. Have you considered talking with someone from VBS about it? I’m guessing there are other parents who may not be pleased with all the treats either–maybe they would reconsider their snacktime for next year. Hang in there!

  9. says

    Well said, Sally! The issue of “messaging” when it comes to food, health and body image is a huge one. Parents, teachers and child care providers need to be aware of the impact of their actions and comments, whether they are direct or subtle. The effect is powerful and lasting. The good news is that positive messages can be just as powerful. We need to change the tide!

    • says

      Good point about the power of positive messages. You and Louise give me hope. 🙂 I keep plugging away with those messages but it can feel like you’re up against Goliath with the food marketing machine. Thanks for your comment!

  10. says

    Great post! I have seen t-shirts like this and others and I also have wondered WHO bought these and who found humor in making fun of an overweight child?? What about the TV shows that have promoted kids eating crap as entertainment- like HoneyBooBoo and the other show about kid pageants where the moms feed their kids massive amounts of sugar to intentionally cause a ‘high’ for performance? It fuels this mentality.

    But I still believe that these external factors aren’t AS influential on a young child’s self-sense of ‘cool’ as what their own parent does and says. Study after study has shown a parent’s positive attitude about healthy foods–from smiling while eating veg to simply role modeling the behavior– leaves a lasting mark on the child’s willingness to tune these ‘noises’ out and follow the healthier path. Now it’s time to convince parents to tune out the noise…

  11. says

    Excellent post Sally! I’m extremely passionate about picture books and I frequently groan when I read another one with a ridiculous subtle or not so subtle statement about the protagonist hating broccoli or Brussels sprouts or anything healthy. So unnecessary and really harmful. Our society has really bought into the big company marketing.

    • says

      Thanks Caryn. I’m not sure why children’s authors feel the need to do that–though I also frequently feel frustrated by kids’ books, envelope for pretty young kids, that have very smart-alecky characters and general disdain for parents and teachers too. But I’m uptight like that. 🙂

  12. April Reeves says

    And no one makes the change to healthier eating until they are really sick. Thankfully I had parents that believed in feeding me really well. Can’t imagine the conversations between overweight kids and their parents later in life…

  13. Emily says

    I ran into this over the weekend so your post is quite timely. We were at a soccer tournament and my 12 year old daughter wanted some snacks for her room. She texted her Dad (who was at Whole Foods at the time) that she didn’t want healthy snacks because all the other girls had non-healthy snacks – like chips, goldfish, gatorade. She didn’t want to be different than her friends. He got her healthier versions of what they were eating. I am finding that at age 12 it is really hard to get my kids to continue on their healthy path due to peer pressure! Any suggestions for dealing with pre-teens and teens when they are surrounded by unhealthy food at every turn?

    • says

      Emily–thanks for your comment. Can’t say I am looking forward to those teen/tween years. All I can hope is that while my kids may indulge in junk with their newfound freedom and money, that they’ll still appreciate the food they get at home and that will carry over into adulthood. I ate an awful lot of crap as a teen but those habits my parents had instilled ultimately prevailed.

  14. Jennifer says

    Excellent post Sally! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The Nutrition Policy team at the Center for Science in the Public Interest is working on this very issue. We’re trying to persuade food companies to stop marketing junk food to kids. Check out our website, http://www.foodmarketing.org/, to learn more about what we do and help us get companies’ attention!

    • says

      Thanks Jennifer! That’s an excellent website–and I’m grateful to CSPI for being on the forefront of this issue and working hard for kids!

  15. karen says

    ” My kids didn’t know they were supposed to hate broccoli.”
    Exactly! I hate it when a healthy food THAT MY KIDS ALREADY LIKE –and have always liked– is made out to be something horrible.

  16. says

    This post is fantastic….What makes me so angry is that it’s adults who are creating these marketing schemes, these children’s books, etc. and it’s adults who are putting these negative ideas about healthy food in children’s minds! It’s incredibly frustrating!!

  17. says

    Amen to that! I just saw a commercial this morning on TV that advertised some sort of meal replacement bar. The brand was called Sinful, and the tagline was something like “Eating less never tasted so good” or something along those lines. Unbelievable.

  18. says

    Thanks for your reply, Sally. My real name is Thalia! But I can’t help but promote my site by using Pie Hole. I like to think it’s catchy and memorable! I’m following you on twitter, so I hope to see your new posts!

  19. TheoasMom says

    Wow…I loved your article. I write children’s stories. Now I will start writing about the attributes of what really good natural whole foods can do for all that love fresh foods.
    Thank you and keep up the good work!!! . I loved “The Bears” message on the foodmarketing,org website. hOPE EVERYONE CHECKS THAT OUT.

  20. Alan says

    I think the problem is not with being cool or marketing. I think that broccoli, brussels spouts, asparagus, and spinach don’t taste even remotely as good as junk food. Go to a 3rd world country where children ( or adults for that matter ) have never seen commercials of any kind. Offer them broccoli and cookies. Then ask them which tastes better?

  21. TheoasMom says

    Most of us are thinking and seeing that the obesity is not from having our children eating what is nutritionally good for them in the veggies and fruits and formulating great habits that will stay with them into their adult lives….it is making poor choices from salts, sugars, fats and empty calories. I am concerned with the choices and ethics that we need to teach each other and our children. If we care about the future of our civilizations on this planet we need to quit kidding ourselves as to what is truly important to use as food for fuel for our bodies to have them work to optimum and not that they taste good (— i.e. sugar) and the consequences.
    I wonder if the previous comments were made by person that has only sweet taste buds. Wonder if they missed the messages posted by the group. You can purchase guacamole in a can in the stores that have no real avocado in the mix what so ever. Impressive marketing if you don’t read the labels. WE ARE WHAT WE EAT!!

  22. Celina says

    Kudos to you for your bold, honest stand! My daughter & I have gluten intolerance so your blog hits home with us even more so. Since I’m the cook in the family, we eat lots of healthy, “made from scratch, like grandma used to” food on a daily basis. Refined, processed food is not on our menu. On the occassion that we eat out with friends, I’m so fed up with the jokes about “eating healthy or eating rabbit food”! It’s really not funny & it’s sending a lousy message to my young daughter that she should feel bad about her choices. Really?! Please continue to speak up for those of us who want to raise children with a balanced view of food!

  23. Jennifer N says

    I have wanted to say this sooooo many times!! I actually had an argument with my sister, who called me a BULLY for wanting her to eat healthier! My entire family thinks I am on a “Diet Kick”. No, I just became more educated and did more research on what the heck our Government is literally showing down our throats with all the GMO’s and processed foods. People need to wake up…the old adage of we are what we eat is so true!! I agree with you completely and would have been disgusted with the parents of that child for the message they are promoting.

    I used to be on their side. I used to say the same excuses as them…”It Costs too much…or not enough choices in healthy food…or it all tastes bad…” This was all based simply on propaganda and the way I was raised and not at all on any tyoe of experience. People need to wake up!

    I thought this was a great video and explained it all so simply!… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIAltUyFo5o

    • says

      Thanks for your comment Jennifer. That was a really interesting video (and really well done). Eating is such a personal, emotional thing and everyone has their own opinions about it–so I’m not surprised that talking about it with your sister triggered some emotions! 🙂 The good news is that there is increasing awareness about food, how it’s made, and where it comes from. I do think the tide is turning!

  24. CA says

    Late to the party, but just found your blog. Thanks for this post; I feel less alone!

    By the way, a close family member we’re continuing to have issues with gives hubby poor nutrition advice. He also assumes I run and am a vegetarian because I’m trying to lose weight. He told me that I should eat “100-calorie packs of Oreos” because they’re vegan and his Weight Watchers lady told him those would be better for me than “fatty, high calorie avocados and nut butters.”

    Makes me very sad. Yes. He’s almost 21.5 stone/300 pounds, two heart attacks, and is on a crazy amount of meds. 🙁


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