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Perspective

Attack of the pint-sized food police

We’re used to finger-wagging from adults, but kids critiquing each other gets more complicated.

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It started innocently enough.

“I got fruit,” my daughter’s friend announced. “Did anyone else get fruit?”

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We were sitting at a table in the food court of the Museum of Science — my 10-year-old daughter, a few of her friends, and me, having lunch after a morning exploring exhibits.

“I got orange juice,” my daughter said, holding up the bottle.

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“Fruit is better. Juice is full of sugar and all sorts of chemicals,” her friend said.

“No, it’s not,” my daughter retorted.

“Besides, you got chips,” another friend told the first kid. “Those are really bad for you.”

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Which is where I stepped in and told them not to criticize one another’s lunches. But the conversation stayed with me.

Like most parents, I suspect, I strive to help my daughter make healthy food choices and limit snacks. I think today’s parents have done a good job teaching kids to think about what they are eating. But we’ve also been training them to think about what other people are eating, and I’m beginning to fear that we’re raising the next generation of Food Police.

I’ve personally been told “You shouldn’t eat that” more times than I can count, sometimes by strangers, both well-meaning and not. Other friends have worse stories: the overweight woman shamed by a store clerk for buying pies for Thanksgiving dinner; the always-slim acquaintance who, eight months pregnant, was harangued for “starving her baby” by a stranger when she dared eat just a salad for lunch.

It’s even worse with children, who aside from being notoriously picky about food, often don’t control what they have access to. And that’s why I worry the most about this tendency toward food policing among children. Lunch at the science museum included a group of nice kids I’ve known for years, and I was there to moderate. But what happens in the school cafeteria when the grown-ups aren’t looking?

That kid with chips and soda for lunch may not have an adult at home to make him a sandwich, and that girl who seems chubby may be bloated by lifesaving medicine. Children don’t always know their classmates’ stories, and yet we may be inadvertently empowering them to judge what other kids should and should not eat. I think that’s wrong.

The truth is you don’t really know anything about other people’s health or their overall diet from their appearance or what’s on their plate. That guy on the street corner eating an enormous slice of pizza could have just finished a marathon. Or been living out of the country and not had a decent slice in months. Or he could eat pizza for lunch every single day, and whether or not that’s a healthy choice is, honestly, none of your business.

People who disagree with me will say that the public health cost of obesity — nearly $200 billion a year in the United States, by one estimate — makes it their business. And I fully support efforts to educate children about food and to make sure healthy choices are available in schools and other places like the cafeteria at the Museum of Science, which has stacks of apples and bananas by the cash register (as well as ice cream, pizza, and other treats). But giving our children access to healthy choices and information about food doesn’t give them permission to dictate the choices of others.

Just as there are many causes of obesity, including eating and exercise habits, medical conditions, and genetics, there are many causes of poor health. I wonder if the folks who like to tell overweight people to stop eating also harass those with the genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s to take more fish oil, because studies suggest it might help battle the disease. Or yell at strangers who aren’t wearing a large hat on sunny days because they might get skin cancer.

Recent research shows food shaming doesn’t work, anyway. A 2014 study in the journal Obesity found people who experienced day-to-day discrimination because of their weight gained more weight than people who didn’t. Meanwhile, researchers at UCLA report that 10-year-old girls who are told they are “too fat” by family members or friends are more likely to be obese at 19 than girls who never heard that criticism.

The verdict is not yet in on the solution to our nation’s obesity problem, but it’s clear that teaching kids to judge others isn’t it. The key thing I want my daughter to understand about healthy food choices is the word “choices.” People get to choose what they put in their bodies, and they make those choices for all sorts of reasons — and those reasons can change, depending on the day or any one of countless circumstances. As her mother, I have some say in what she eats, and as she gets older, I want her to listen to what medical professionals say about her health. But, ultimately, it’s her choice. And other kids’, too.

Because in the end, I want my daughter to be healthy, but I also want her to know that eating a Dorito is not a mortal sin. And while fruit might be a healthier choice than juice, making that choice doesn’t make you “better.”

BY THE NUMBERS

58% — Percentage of 2,379 girls in a UCLA survey who were told they were too fat at age 10

1.66x — Number of times it was more likely that those girls would be obese at age 19 than the girls who weren’t labeled

Related:

Kids eat healthier when given more time for lunch

Consider a more holistic approach to children’s nutrition

Picky eating in kids linked to anxiety, depression

Adam Mansbach’s adult-friendly take on how children eat

10 house rules for successful dining with kids

Lee Gjertsen Malone is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Last Boy at St. Edith’s.” Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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