Monday, February 3, 2014

Food UnEarthed: Uncovering the Truth About Food at PS 132

Racial and ethnic disparities in disease rates are not more apparent anywhere than in the Bronx. But what most people don’t know is that most disease is caused by what Dr. David L. Katz, the Director of Yale’s Prevention Research Center describes as the 3 F’s:  feet (lack of exercise), fork (poor food choices partly as a result of food deserts/lack of healthy food), and fingers (tobacco use). That’s right – most diseases – type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, many cancers, and many autoimmune diseases are caused by “lifestyle.” The estimate is that about 75% of these diseases are caused by lifestyle, and only about 25% are caused by genetics. By changing lifestyle, we could eliminate 80% of all heart disease and strokes, 90% of type 2 diabetes, and as much as 60% of cancers (about half of these are caused by diet and the other half by tobacco).

But if the U.S. Dietary Guidelines are supposed to help us eat healthy, why is it that we keep getting heavier and sicker? A clue might be found in New York Times’ reporter Michael Moss’s book “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” in which he reports the food industries concerted efforts to make their food irresistible – or to put it another way, addictive. They call it the “bliss point.” That’s the exact level of salt, sugar, and fat that will want to make us keep eating more, but not too little or so much that we find it less appealing.

How do we fight multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, campaign donations to elected officials or candidates, processed foods designed with the “bliss point” in mind, and misleading information on food packaging?

The answer is education. Enter the Coalition for Healthy School Food. Each Wednesday, CHSF teacher Tashya Knight and Program Director Kelley Wind come to PS132 to bring their curriculum, Food UnEarthed: Uncovering the Truth About Food to 4 classes of 5th graders.

Students become detectives and work to uncover the truth about food. In addition to nutrition, students learn about food politics, media literacy, how labels lie, food and the environment, and even a little bit about the animals raised for food.

The focus is on “big picture” nutrition. Because it’s not so important that oranges and broccoli have vitamin C or carrots have vitamin A. It’s important that we eat more whole plant foods: vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, lentils, split peas), whole grains, nuts and seeds. That might not sound that exciting, but the truth is there is a huge world of delicious – and healthy – foods that can be made from whole plant foods. Plants are the only source of fiber in the diet – and the only source of phyto-nutrients – those special nutrients that help us fight cancer. It’s also important that we eat less animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and seafood) and processed foods (foods containing refined grains, added sugar, added oils or fats, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, or trans fats). Animal products are the only source of cholesterol in the diet and the primary source of saturated fat. Regardless of what you have heard about them in the popular media, the research is quite clear – we should eat (and drink) less animal products. The same is true of processed foods. The fact is that a diet high in processed foods and animal products results in disease and not feeling well. Not only does it harm our physical body, but our mood as well.

Another thing it is important for students (and adults) to understand is the myths surrounding the “macro” nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. “Carbs” are not bad. REFINED carbohydrates are. UNREFINED carbohydrates should be the basis of our diet. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes are all primarily carbohydrates, and they are unrefined carbohydrates – these are good and healthy. Fats are not bad – they are important for our health. But there are fats we should eat for health, and fats we should eat less of, which harm our health. The really good fats are nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives. These are whole foods. The fats we should eat less of are the kinds found in animal products, and foods with added oils. We should be especially careful of trans fats. Despite labels that say “0 grams of trans fats” you can know if there are trans fats in a food if you spot “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredient list. How can this be so? The food industry talked the government into rounding down to 0 if there was less than half a gram per serving. The thing is, most people don’t eat one serving, especially of the kinds of foods that have trans fats in them, and the World Health Organization said that no level can be considered safe. About half of all the trans fats we consume are actually naturally occurring in foods and  beverages that come from cows – or other ruminant animals. Finally, there is a protein myth. Yes we need protein to grow – but most people get two or three times more than they need. And most get it from animal products, which also come in a package with cholesterol and saturated fat – and no fiber (fiber is only found in plant foods, cholesterol is only found in animal foods).

Whole plant foods come with packages of fiber and phytonutrients, don’t have any cholesterol, and are low in fat. All whole plant foods have protein, and we should get enough as long as we eat enough calories – even if we weren’t eating beans and tofu. The plant foods that have more concentrated proteins, that most people like to replace their meat, cheese, fish, seafood, and eggs with, are legumes (which includes beans, lentils, split peas, and peanuts) soy products (the healthiest types being tofu and tempeh – some of the others are quite processed), and Seitan, which is made from the protein part of wheat. The grain quinoa also has a lot of protein, as do green peas (which is where split peas come from). Gluten-containing grains also have a fair amount of protein. We need protein and it is important for our body – but we don’t need to worry about it. If we are eating enough calories and a basic variety of foods, it would be hard to not get enough. The more we cut back on animal products, and the more we focus on whole plant foods in our diet, the better it is for our health and the health of the planet.  

We teach these concepts to the students to help them become critical thinkers about food, and to empower them so they know that they are in control of their current and future health; then we teach them how they can realistically make healthy choices to do so.

In a recent class, one student reported that she had been eating less chips. Another student said she eats less junk food and more fruits and vegetables. In a recent class about sugar we discussed how much sugar is in chocolate milk. Children are much more observant than we often give them credit for, and the hypocrisy of our culture is not lost on them.  One student pointed out “if we are supposed to be a healthy America then why do they keep feeding us unhealthy junk food?”

Our classes are every week, and each class is accompanied by a healthy plant-based snack. We have found that many students have very limited experiences with fruits and vegetables at home, and that some students never eat fruits or vegetables. In the classroom they are learning that they taste good and make them feel good.  For children that can't get them at home, fortunately the lunch room at school is loaded with a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Food UnEarthed: Uncovering the Truth About Food is a year’s worth of valuable lessons for students so that they can change the course of their future. We find that the students are sharing the information with their friends and their families, and spreading the word that they don’t want to be targets of a food industry gone haywire!

If you are interested in bringing Food UnEarthed to your school, please contact Amie Hamlin, Executive Director, Coalition for Healthy School Food at or 607-272-1154.

PS 132 is a partner in the Healthy Schools NY Program, focused on improving nutrition, physical education, and physical activity in New York public schools.  For more information, please contact Kelly Moltzen, Healthy Schools NY Program Coordinator at Bronx Health REACH, at or 212-633-0800 x 1328.

This blog post was written by Amie Hamlin, Executive Director of the Coalition for Healthy School Food.

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