From Skinny Kids to Childhood Obesity

Through most of the twentieth century, the worry for children and their nutrition was to be sure they were big and strong, not skinny. How did we shift the concern from skinny kids to childhood obesity? Susan Levine and Faye Flam offer helpful perspective.

Levine charts the history of school lunch in School Lunch Politics, published by the Princeton University Press. In doing so, she paints a clear picture of the origins of school lunch programs in the progressive era of the early twentieth century to fight malnutrition. In World War I, too many young men were rejected from military service because they were too skinny, weak, or otherwise poorly fed.

Until the 1980s, the federal government set minimum standards for school lunch calories, with no maximum for calories, fat, sugar, or salt. Flam explains in a recent report for the Washington Post that two major shifts in the 1980s occurred in the American diet as obesity rates began growing rapidly. High fructose corn syrup entered the food supply to provide a cheap source for sweetening foods. At the same time, policymakers promoted a major reduction in fats, while favoring a relative increase in complex carbohydrates.

Industry responded with low-fat foods that were high in carbohydrates. Portion sizes grew. Fat consumption relative to carbohydrates dropped, but mainly because people were eating more carbohydrates and more total calories. These shifts marked the beginning of a tripling of childhood obesity rates.

While some nutrition experts say no single cause or explanation tells the whole story, Gary Taubes is not so cautious. He points to the unintended consequences of a dogmatic emphasis on low-fat diets without good evidence for the health effects of such policies.

The result was a marketplace brimming with high-carbohydrate foods, high-fructose corn syrup, and starch. Food grew sweeter, portions grew larger, and obesity took off.

It’s a cautionary tale about the surprising effects of nutrition policy guided by personal convictions more than evidence.

Click here to read more in the Washington Post and here to read more about School Lunch Politics at

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