Monday, May 19, 2008

Our Children: Nosh, (Lack of) Exercise

The OU Shabbat Shalom Newletter ran an article by Dr. Ronald Nagel (UCLA Associate Professor of Medicine and private practice) titled Pediatric Obesity: A Challenge for the Orthodox Jewish Community. I believe I have seen this article run in other publications, yet it is always worthy of another read.

Dr. Nagel takes a look at a nationwide trend of the rise of childhood onset Type II diabetes and the risk factors in the Orthodox community, namely great quantities of food available (especially pure junk) and the lack of exercise and opportunities for exercise.

The following sentence that Dr. Nagel wrote really resonated with me, "Have you ever wondered why children who bring “snacks” to shul must have a fruit roll, potato chips and candy?" I was just telling my husband that it is incredibly sad that parents seem to feel the need to send their children with food everywhere. Not only does it send the message that every perceived need/want must be satisfied immediately, but it is just plain unhealthy. I was saying this in reaction to an extracurricular activity I helped out with. It was shocking that in the middle of a one hour class (yes, 1 hour/60 minutes) there was a snack break. Not only was a mess left on the floor because of the snack break (which someone had to clean up. . .and -surprise-it wasn't the kids), but the kids were practically cancelling out the positive effects of the exercise they were getting by gulping down soda and potato chips.

Another little moment I'm reminded of was that of a few weeks ago. I took my kids to the park for an afternoon outing on a lovely day. Shortly after we arrive, a mother with a bunch of kids arrives. The kids aren't getting out there and playing, and she isn't too thrilled because it took a lot of work to get this many kids out of the house and she is snapping at them. Why? They are passing around a large bottle of Coca-Cola around. Her frustration is starting to come out when she snaps, "we didn't come here to eat, we came to play!" I try not to give unsolicited advice, but had to bite my lip to keep from saying, "perhaps you should leave the soda behind next time."

The amount of food and types of food available that many of our children eating is certainly a large part of the equation. The doctor mentions extensive spreads at smachot and kiddushim, as well as the proliferation of kosher junk food. He doesn't touch the traditional Jewish diet, nor the very popular (and expanding) fundraising technique of bringing in various fast foods for resale in nearly ever school I know of (from pre-school to high school).

Since we have been discussing budgeting again lately, I might as well state that sometimes the solution to lowering the bills (not only in the home, but in the shul and school) is right in front of our eyes. Certainly there is room to cut back on the amounts of foods served at weddings, the amounts of foods bought for mishloach manot, and the amount of snacks eaten out and about. While I know we aren't supposed to count dollars spent on Shabbat meals, I do believe the success of our grocery bills can partially be attributed to the lack of soda at our table on Shabbat. Do we and our children really need soda for all three meals and a kiddush also?

The bigger problem (touched on only in passive by Dr. Nadel) is the exercise equation. Quite simply, our children (as a whole) simply are NOT getting enough of it. The urban environments most of us live in (many unsafe to boot) is a contributor. The long school day no doubt contributes. The fact that PE is beyond secondary in priority doesn't help. The lack of facilities strips variety from the menu, leaving a rather uninspiring menu for many, if not most. Teenager in my community tell me basketball is basically the only sport they have been introduced too. I was quite the athlete in my own day. . . . but I don't believe I ever joined in a game of basketball voluntarily.

Girls really get the short end of the stick. Frummer communities, especially, place great restrictions on what is acceptable for girls, while simultaneously placing a great deal of emphasis on looks. A girl is expected to be slim, slim, slim when she reaches shidduch age. But, she doesn't get much of a chance to develop her athletic side, nor does she have much exposure to the fact that in-shape bodies come in various sizes. It is no wonder that eating disorders has hit the radar of problems in the community. But from right to left, the lack of available facilities and is a real problem.

Speaking of lack of facilities, I am reminded of a school I saw on a visit to Los Angeles a number of years ago. There was a police incident happening on the main street in front of a school, so I decided to walk through the alley. As I'm walking through, I hear balls bouncing. I look behind me to make sure I wasn't being followed, but no one was there. As I continued walking, I noticed that the elementary school boys were having their recess in the nearly underground, dimly lit, parking lot of the boys school. I don't know that there is much that can be done about lack of facilities in more urban areas. But, it is a real shame.

As Dr. Nagel points out, the blame game is useless. But, who should be taking the lead in this issue? Normally, I tend to argue that parents must take the lead when they seen an issue. However, it is really hard for a parent to take the lead, outside of creating a better diet and trying to help regulate how their children eat at kiddushim, etc. I can say that while I try to get my own kids out and active, I have become rather uninspiring myself. Perhaps someday I will get the opportunity to teach proper weightlifting techniques to my children. But, at least for the time being, I am either pregnant, nursing, or have a baby in tow. So, while I'd love to be throwing a ball, riding a bike, or creating an obstacle course, I tend to be worn out, not fully available, or just making sure that a little one doesn't get hit by a ball or sideswiped by a bike. I'm afraid the schools might have to be the more active player in this one.

Summer provides a great opportunity for kids to get more involved with sports and exercise. But, summer exercise isn't enough. You can't just flip a switch for exercise. Muscles must be stretched and warmed regularly, or promoting physical fitness is just frustrating and demoralizing (just talk to mothers that are trying to get back in shape after a baby!). What about the rest of the school year? How can we make sure our children are getting the exercise they need?

What could be in it for the schools? I believe behavior would improve tremendously, especially for boys, if they were given regular PE, increasing job satisfaction for all staff. But, my theory hasn't been tried yet.


Anonymous said...

thank you for a great post. This is a topic that hits very close to home.
We stopped buying juices and sodas when we got married. I always get comments when people come for shabbos and the only thing to drink is water. My favorite comment is "but orange juice is healthy. it has vitamin C."
Changing once's diet is just the first step. Excersise and activities and equally important. You don't have to join a gym to be more active. Just take a 10 minute walk each day, take baby/toddler along.
When I was living in the states I decided to do something radical. When I had to go to shul in the middle of the week for a shiur or activity I would walk there instead of drive. The next door neighbors would offer me a ride and I always refused. We always got there and back at the same time. They would drive to the library and I would walk, and they just didn't understand that I actually ENJOYED walking outside. For them it was a burden.
One important positive aspect of where I live is that snacks at the park are usually fruits. Mothers bring apples and whatever else is on season and a knife and that is what kids eat. Of course, there is the usual pretzel, bisli, and bamba, but there is always fruits. My daughter usually receives a few pieces of apple in the park (which she eats better than the apple I bring... peer presure). One of the maonim (day care) here also does that, one of the morniing snacks is always fruits and all the kids eat it.
Maybe you can try taht too. but the mother with the soda bottle may have a real shock and her kids may not know what to do with the apple ;)

Anonymous said...

I can't believe all the junk they serve at school. My daughter is in first grade. As reading homework, they read from tehillim every night. Whenever a girl finishes a sefer, she can bring two candies to school for her siyum. 20 girls x 5 sefers = 100 siyums over a school year of 170 days. Plus a chumash party, sidur party, chumash siyum, party before every Yom Tov vacation, party for the 100th day of school, birthday parties, Shabbos parties, it is never ending.

I can regulate what they eat at home, but why do the schools feel the need to commemorate every occasion with junk?

mother in israel said...

I agree with anon--candy is given as a reward all the time.

I just wanted to point out, in case anyone gets the wrong idea, that a nursing mother does not need to limit her exercise in any way for health reasons. The idea that exercise negatively affects milk quality was disproven long ago. Of course arranging one's schedule to allow exercise can be a challenge, but with creativity it can be done And involving the children is even better.

Leora said...

Great post. I am trying to convince my synagogue to buy more seltzer and less soda.

My daughter (she's five) sometimes likes to skip Fridays, because it's junk food day in her classroom. Sad.

You can get creative with non-sugar drinks. Besides water and seltzer, a pitcher of water with a few lemons on top is elegant. Add a sprig of mint, too.

ProfK said...

Yes, the junk food is an issue but even an occasional snack or soda would not be a problem if the real culprit were taken care of: lack of movement.

Our kids start school at younger and younger ages and the school day gets longer and longer. And recess and gym become scarcer and scarcer. The kids are expected to sit still for long periods of time. Watch an adult at home who is concentrating on something. They have to get up and move around periodically because sitting for so long cramps up the body. But we expect our children to do this. A 15-20 minute recess in the morning and afternoon and a 30-45 minute lunch time where you can "go play" after you eat is not sufficientfor such long school days.

The schools answer that there is more to teach today then when I was young and they need more instruction time. Granted, but it comes at the cost of health. It also comes at the cost of increased learning disabilities and problems like ADD and ADHD.

When I was little there were some kids who couldn't sit completely still for a whole day but who eventually learned how to do it. No one labeled them. Today we have zillions of children whom we label ADD/ADHD and who are put on ritalin. A psychologist friend says that we have created these conditions with our modern schooling methods. Almost all cases would benefit from shorter days and more chance to move around during the day. And the other health benefits would be tremendous as well.

Lion of Zion said...

"Have you ever wondered why children who bring “snacks” to shul must have a fruit roll, potato chips and candy?""

i bring grapes, tomatoes, olives and cheerios for jr to eat in shul. that's it. until recently the candyman knew not even to go near him, but i've recently given up on that.

in general, i think the nosh/sugar factor is only a small part of the juvenile diet problem. kids don't eat properly overall, whether at home or in school. we were at first extremely careful what he ate. i sent him with him food everyday day to daycare partially because of his dairy allergy but also because i was appalled at the crappy diet there. now he eats their crap on non-dairy days.

he still eats relatively well at home and no nosh except as bribes (yeah, yeah, we're not all perfect) such as for toilet training.

i won't comment on the exercise, as that would simply be hypocritical.

Lion of Zion said...

just to add, while the longer school day in yeshivot and certain cultural "norms" contribute to our exercise problem, this is not just an orthodox issue. PE has been scaled back extensively in public schools as well (although of course these kids still have more opportunities outside of school than we do)

Lion of Zion said...


"The schools answer that there is more to teach today then when I was young"

liek what?

i think they should worry about the quality of the teaching time they already have (as well as classes that are too large and teachers that shouldn't be teaching) before arguing that a lack of time is the problem.

"It also comes at the cost of increased learning disabilities and problems like ADD and ADHD."

i learned about AD(H)D in school a few years ago and i don't remember the material so well, but fwir, AD(H)D is a hormonal problem with strong evidence of a generic predisposition. clinical evidence does not support attributing poor nutrition as a cause.

Anonymous said...

I was in a local grocery store the other day and noticed that that the junk food aisle of this HUGE run of the mill grocery store was half the size of the junk food aisle in our local kosher mid-size grocery store.

My youngest is in a Montessori program and they give one tiny candy on Friday for Shabbos. Other than that they give out only healthy snacks.

And the first 2 years my daughter was in Bais Yaakov, it was emphasized that we send in *healthy* snacks. That seems to have gone by the wayside and she seems to be getting more and more junk from school. Disappointing.

Re: AD(H)D. Is there ever such thing as conclusize diagnosis of Ad(H)D? I was under the impression that it was easy to misdiagnose it. It wouldn't surprise me if the "lack of exercise" + "excess of processed sweets" == "behavior reminiscent of AD(H)D", ie hard to handle children.

Anonymous said...

Don't most communities have YMHA/JCC's where kids can go? My oldest children actually go once or twice a week on their own to play ball or use the treadmills. Now that it's decent weather, the kids are all over the block after school riding bikes, playing with the diabolos, schmoozing etc.

Soda is reserved for shabbos meals only, and they all know how to pick out the non-caffinated sodas Friday night. That gives the soda the status of "l'kovod shabbos"

Weekday snacks are limited to 2 "junk" items only, and I buy the bagged chips at the local wholesale club (no one ate the ones we put in baggies from the big boxes since they got stale, and also turned into little crumbs that got all over the place when knocked around in the bag. No such problem with pretzels)

My oldest reads the labels and figures out fat content and calories. I remember when she was younger she was somewhat overweight and a "junkie", but our pediatrician said not to worry about it, she'll straighten out on her own (which she did, and looks much better now)

Anonymous said...

Good post.

I think all you need to do is take a good look at the adults in the shul to see where the problem lies. The men (and to a lesser extent some women) are all tremendously overweight. I can't even count the number of men in my shul wearing at least 40" waist pants tucked under their bellies. And of course the second a guy is married, if he's not putting on weight his wife must be a bad cook. We go to Shabbat meals out all the time and for 8 people there is food for 20 (I'm guilty of this too, but at least we only make food for 15 :) ).

Growing up I was always SO jealous of all the kids bringing all the good snacks to school. My mom gave us a fruit roll up, plain popcorn, and an apple. We never had soda or other sugary drinks growing up. At school we had a small juice pack, at home water or some OJ or apple juice. Other kids brought in tons of garbage and snack foods and when I spent Shabbat by them had entire pantries full of junk food. My mom never had junk in the house and we never had dessert after meals unless there was a birthday.

Of course these same kids who grew up like this feel the need to continue the fine tradition - many of my neighbors have pantries full of junk and feed it to their kids.

Furthermore, so many Jewish families cook so terribly unhealthy - everything is fried, has tons of oil or sticks of margarine. Look at the typical eastern european Jewish diet - schnitzel, greasy potato kugel, lukshun kugel, chulent. Everyone looks at McDonalds and other fast food joints and scoffs at the people who eat there "it's so unhealthy!" if we did a calorie count on traditional Shabbos food I bet McDonalds would look pretty good in comparison.

In terms of exercise, at least this is one area MO yeshivas are better at - most now have modern, full facilities. But, the MO yeshiva I went to didn't and we played basketball in the gym or football in the parking lot. The girls played basketball or volleyball or just walked around the school facilities. We had gym twice a week - but I don't think anyone was getting their allotment of exercise, it was just fun to be out of class. My family had all of us participate in little league soccer and baseball - the suburn where we lived was very Jewish and had Sunday leagues.

Lastly, women and shidduchim. You're 100% right, there's this expectation women should all be a size zero. I heard a story this past Shabbat that a guy wouldn't help set up his sister because she was overweight (we heard the story from a friend of the girl). Yet, no one ever looks at the guys to see what shape they're in (especially after marriage, see above). There were many rumors in my high school of girls with eating disorders and I overheard many girls talking about how they'll just have some crackers for lunch. It's very sad.

the apple said...

Girls really get the short end of the stick. Frummer communities, especially, place great restrictions on what is acceptable for girls


It's so true. It probably varies by community, but sending your kid to some type of class that is an unusual activity depends how much of a "stigma" it will be for your child to participate in an activity that may take them (gasp!) outside of the community's bounds (and whether or not you care about that stigma).

ProfK said...

I didn't mention nutrition as a cause of ADD/ADHD. The sugar connection has been pretty much proven to be a false connection. But the "movement" connection is there. Chldren who are forced to sit in one position for extended periods of time get antsy doing so. They need to "burn off" what seems to be their excess energy. When kids spend a zillion hours a day sitting still--against their "genetic" dispositions, you end up with attention problems.

What do they teach more of today? Computers and technology for one thing. History has more to it as well. In the 50s and 60s and even into the 70s "global studies" was relegated to one semester in high school maybe. The emphasis was on American History. Today world history is an integral part of the curriculum. Science has expanded rapidly in the last few decades so science studies have expanded also.

Re the larger classes, where have we gotten the idea that classes were small decades back? Yeshiva classes may have been smaller because of a smaller population to draw from back then, but not the public schools. I have my elementary and high school year books and I never had less than 25-30 children in a class.

The more we discover, the more there is to know, the more there is to teach.

Anonymous said...

The hot lunch at my daughters's school is incredibly bad--lots of starch and fat. I am grateful that the program is optional. I don't know what I would do if I was required to pay for such terrible food. But one wonderful thing that the school did was to institute the "Healthy Snack Train." When my oldest daughter was in the school, I (and a number of other parents) constantly complained about the cookies, pretzels, and chips that the school was giving out at snack time. The school responded that they could buy those things in bulk, and it was too expensive and too difficult to give the kids fruits and vegetables for snack. Then they got a new Early Childhood director, and she instituted the "healthy snack train." Every week, one child brings in enough fruits or vegetables for his/her class for the week. That child's picture is taken holding toy fruits, and the picture in put in the slot of the "healthy snack train" at the entrance to the school. The child feels proud that s/he is the conductor for the week, and all the kids get a healthy morning snack.

Leora said...

There are plenty of studies linking food additives and ADHD-like behavior:

A friend took away all food coloring from her son one summer. His behavior improved dramatically. Too bad when he got back to school, it was too hard to regulate. Now he's a teen, needs to regulate on his own.

Ariella's blog said...

candy and regular class parties featuring junk food contributed by each kid in the class really do add on lot of empty calories -- bad for the teeth, too. After warnings about cholesterol levels from the doctor, though, my older girls have become more conscious of nutritional value of foods. But my youngest would eat snacks all the time if she could. She does also eat fresh fruit, for I always keep that on hand. Some kids seem to have never tasted fruit except in the form of juice.

Esther said...

Thanks for the great post. (And enjoyed seeing Dr. Nagel mentioned - we went to his pediatric practice in L.A. and he's took care of our son when he cut his head open as a baby.)

I have a very serious problem with the amount of candy that is handed out by random adults to kids at shul - at one shul I have chosen not to continue attending, the kids learn which grownups are the "candy man", and then all the kids are running around like maniacs.

A friend of mine has been fighting a losing battle with our pre-school to reduce the junk food given out for snacks and birthdays. She brings in special snacks for her own daughter, but the teachers have given her a problem even about that. (One of them said "how is a little sugar going to hurt her?") If there is a birthday party on a Friday, they end up with junk food at snack time, cake or cookies for the birthday, and then Shabbat Party snack.

Anonymous said...

Please see this interesting series running in the Washington Post this week on childhood obesity.

mother in israel said...

Anon: Thanks for linking to that series in the Washington Post. It bugged me that the entire focus was on how to get kids and teens to lose weight. One of the articles admits that by elementary school age, it is generally too late and a good deal of harm has been done.
Why aren't they talking about infancy and early childhood? Bad habits start early.

Leah Goodman said...

js: did you go to Frisch? I'm class of '95.

Also, we've decided that we drink water during the week. On Shabbat, we buy one bottle of a fairly low-calorie drink (usually flavored water or diet "black beer")

When we have guests, they always ask what to bring and i tell them that if they want drinks other than water, they should bring their own.

(my parents are dedicated diet coke drinkers)

I think it's much easier to teach your child to drink water if that's what everyone in the house drinks.

admittedly, my baby is still not one, but she's barely tasted any other drinks, so she willingly drinks water when thirsty.

Anonymous said...

I'm not the healthiest mare in the stable, but I have always only had water and I can't tolerate anything other than water and milk (a bit of OJ every now and then). My kids were the same until the Rebbes started plying them with soda (this in our MO day school!).

Anonymous said...

trilcat...Frisch '99.