What's in your lunch box? County Superintendent of Schools, Michael Watkins put that question to 200 early educators at the Together for Kindergarten Forum on March 16, 2016. Building relationships between kinder teachers and those who educate children before they start school, the annual forum helps children start school eager and ready to learn.
Now in its seventh year, Together for Kindergarten has taken on a diverse range of topics including early literacy, new legislation, early math, social emotional development, and the importance of family involvement. Each topic is based on brain research that shows that 90 percent (90%) of who we are is determined by the age of five, so early investments into a child's well-being prevents expensive catching-up later on.
The idea of starting early holds especially true when it comes to nutrition. The catalyst for this year's topic came from a study in the New England Journal of Medicine which states that "efforts to help children obtain a healthy weight need to happen before kindergarten." In his opening remarks, Superintendent Michael Watkins underlined the importance of this year's forum because of the close connection between the exploding epidemic of diabetes in California and early weight gain in children. Watkins cited a recent UCLA study, which found that 55 percent—the majority of California adults—have diabetes or prediabetes, a health crisis that is caused by hidden sugars in the foods we eat.
Left to Right: Gary Taubes, science journalist/author; Carole Mulford; Superintendent Michael Watkins
Addressing the audience of pre-school and kindergarten teachers, Superintendent Watkins said, "we have to ask ourselves whether we're educating our children to be physically well enough to seize the opportunities that come their way—the opportunities that every one of you works every day to create for them. Will they have the focus, the concentration, and physical stamina to participate and succeed—both in school and beyond?"
Nutritionist and author of the book, "Sweet Fire: Sugar, Diabetes and Your Health," Mary Toscano, broke down the science of sugar and where to look for hidden sugars in the foods we eat. Toscano explained that all vegetables and grains break down into sugars, but whole foods, such as broccoli, contain fiber to slow down the process of glucose entering the bloodstream. After Toscano explained how to read product labels to find the true sugar content, the attendees engaged in a lively and informative exercise, sifting through bags of typical lunch items, practicing a new way of understanding what's in the foods kids bring to school. For participants, the exercise created a personal level of awareness about sugar that will help inform classroom policies and curriculum, as well as their interaction with families around food choices. For many, the "ah ha!" moment came as they counted out the number of teaspoons of sugar in foods kids bring every day - things like a small box of fruit juice or a tiny bag of pretzels. "Seventeen teaspoons," one teacher exclaimed. "And we give them two of the boxes of fruit juice because we think we're feeding them healthy food!"
Assorted Fruit Flavored Snack: ultra processed (added sugar/toxic ingredients) marketed to children
Highlighting a 900 percent (900%) increase in diabetes since the 1960's, keynote speaker author Gary Taubes made a strong case against the "calories in, calories out" theory, pointing out that every food we eat has a very different metabolic and hormonal effect on our bodies, so calories aren't created equal. He also explained the historic connection between increased sugar intake and the prevelance of diseases, like diabetes, noting that, worldwide, anywhere sugar is added to the diet, the rates of diabetes and obesity explode. In the U.S., the rise in diabetes and obesity can be tracked back to the development of a food and marketing industry that not only targets children, but profits by producing ultra processed foods that make them sick. Taubes said "If we didn't have sugar in our diet, diabetes would be as rare as lung cancer would be if we didn't smoke cigarettes." But unlike tobacco, sugar is everywhere, hidden in 80 percent (80%) of packaged foods, and Taubes predicted the fight against the food industry will be even tougher than the fight against big tobacco.
As a science journalist and founder of the Nutrition Science Institute, Taubes, admitted the difficulties families and educators face in improving the way kids eat. In the Q&A that followed the keynote address, one participant asked Taubes, "Where do we start? It's so hard to change the way children eat. What are you suggesting we do?" Taubes responded, saying, "I'd start by getting the sugar out."
Learning about how drinking juice negatively affects the body. Fruit should be eaten in its natural state with fiber to slowdown the insulin response causing metabolic diseases.
Since the majority of Californians are already diabetic or pre-diabetic, it will take all of us—teachers, coaches, families and elected officials—to turn this epidemic around for the sake our children. Going forward with the idea that knowledge is power, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education is committed to providing early educators with research-based strategies for preventing diabetes and metabolic disorder so they can put best nutrition practices to work in their schools.
Here are a few suggestions to Gary Taubes' list of daily choices that will lower the risk of diabetes and metabolic disorder:
Drink water only, no sugary drinks, including fruit juice.
Learn to read product labels for sugar and carbohydrate content, not fat or calories. Hint: look for total sugars and divide by 4 to get total number of teaspoons of sugar. If the product contains processed carbohydrate (flour, corn, wheat) use total carbohydrates and divide by 4 to get total number of teaspoons of sugar. Remember, all carbs break down into simple sugars.
Invent new ways to celebrate that don't include sugary treats: games, art, rewards for positive choices. Get creative. Let's not use foods that make us sick as a reward.
Grow. Cook. Chop. Boil. In other words, eat real food.
Make a few changes every day. Start with your family, school, business, church, or club. We no longer can say we don't have time to cook—we actually don't have time "not" to...