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Seuss-ciety: Green Eggs and Ham (and other contributors to Child Obesity)

Opinion | April 6, 2016

“I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!” is the ending of the world’s 8th best-selling children’s book of all time: Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. In the book, Sam-I-am convinces his friend to eat a dish of green eggs and ham. The friend reluctantly gives in and tries it, then realizes that he loves it. Perhaps Seuss meant to teach children that they should try their broccoli. A darker interpretation is that children should give in to peer pressure. Just as Sam-I-am convinces his friend to eat something he hadn’t planned to eat, external influences impact our own diets, too.

In an interview for TuftScope, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, said, “we all have a relatively limited plate of choices based on the food around us.” Dr. Mozaffarian cited education, income, culture, stores, restaurants, and access to transportation as factors that influence what foods reach our stomachs. While it may feel like we choose what we eat, we are really limited by these factors. They are our real-world Sam-I-am.

In recent decades, these real Sam-I-ams have become more harmful, especially toward children.

Grocery stores and restaurants have plentiful amounts of food that is calorie-dense but nutrient-poor, according to Dr. Christina Economos, a nutrition scientist at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. To make matters worse, many newer communities have been built without sidewalks or bike paths, which creates dependence on cars and therefore decreases physical activity. Schools admirably strive to raise academic performance, but often they cut recess and physical education time in the process. New technologies create attractive alternatives to playing outside.

And then there’s the media problem. According to the American Academy for Pediatrics, studies have shown that children under eight years old are “psychologically defenseless against advertising.” Unlike adults, children blindly accept advertising claims because they do not understand the distinction that advertisements intend to sell them products. In light of this research, Toucan Sam bears a suspicious resemblance to Sam-I-am.

All of these forces influence individuals’ diet and exercise choices. Victor Strasburger, MD and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said, “American society couldn’t do a worse job at the moment of keeping children fit and healthy.” So what can we do to defend our children against the Sam-I-ams that pervade our society?

Good government policies are essential. For example, Sweden and Norway defend their children against exploitative advertisements by prohibiting TV ads to children under 12 years old. Greece only allows toy advertisements after 10 p.m. Additionally, economic policies can make healthy eating more affordable. In his TuftScope interview, Dean Mozaffarian said taxing unhealthy foods and subsidizing healthy foods can “transform the food supply.” Taxing unhealthier foods raises prices so they more accurately reflect hidden costs incurred by disease and other consequences.

However, governmental changes come slowly. For example, the US government only updates its dietary guidelines every five years. When government sluggishness holds up the process, other entities can pick up the slack. Dr. Economos says that ChildObesity180, the Tufts initiative she directs, “combines the rigor of science with the innovation of business” in order to take interventions that work and make them scalable for much larger populations. The initiative aims to scale important interventions such as quality physical activity in schools, nutritious school breakfasts, healthy environments in enrichment programs and youth sports, and reducing excess calories in restaurants where kids eat. The work places an emphasis on scientific evidence demonstrating that particular interventions work.

Individuals can help by making healthy personal decisions in their own lives. They can also vote for representatives and initiatives that will make nutritional choices more obtainable. If citizens demand that Sam-I-am offer us a smaller portion of lean ham along with vegetables, whole grains, and non-green eggs, then he just might have to listen. Why are those eggs green, anyway? Would a nutrition scientist ever condone eating green eggs?

“I think if they’re green due to an all-natural vegetable dye, it probably isn’t an issue,” Dr. Economos said.