I’ve been vaguely following the reports on Jamie Oliver’s trip to a West Virgina school where he showed the children common vegetables, like tomatoes and cauliflower, which they were unable to identify. This led me to think about my own childhood, and what I ate. What I realize is that while vegetables did exist here and there in my surroundings, and I certainly could identify them, I never really ate them.
I led a gastronomic triple life as a child, since I split my time between three homes. In my father’s house there were some chicken and rice dishes, a lot of microwavable soy products, some cucumbers and carrots, and pitchers of pink lemonade, which we considered a healthy alternative to Coke. We ate Kraft singles on white bread, chewy granola bars, potato chips, graham crackers, and popsicles. In my grandmother’s house there was a lot of boiled chicken. There were greasy latkes, Empire frozen pizza bagels, and stale coffee cakes which were not really cakes, but challah stuffed with homemade jam as thick as tar. There was strudel and there were cinnamon rolls which were – like the coffee cake – just a slight variation on the challah recipe. My grandmother grew cucumbers in her garden, but we never ate them fresh. The minute we plucked one it went right into a jar for pickling. Same was true of the figs from her fig tree. They went right to the pot, destined to become jam. And then there was my mother’s apartment, where junk food ruled. [Note: My mother was incapacitated with MS so she was not actually serving the junk food, but rather her caregiver of the moment was doing so and my mother was unable to object].
The caregivers who also drove my brother and me back-and-forth between our parents’ homes always stopped at 7- Eleven for cigarettes, which is where my brother got his Coke and Twix, and I got my Sprite and Kit-Kat. (I just paused in writing this to look up the carbohydrate content of a can of Sprite and a Kit-Kat – 90 grams of carb!). With our sugar in hand, my brother and I went into our mother’s apartment and straight to our Atari where we began heated games of Pitfall and Frogger. As intense as it was to maneuver that primitive Atari joystick, it wasn’t enough of a work-out to burn off the sugar and calories in the snack we were eating. And yet, we weren’t fat. In fact, we were both about as skinny as possible.
So my question is, with all of the sugar, carbs, and processed food we were eating, why weren’t we overweight like so many children today? Genetics, I’m sure plays a role, and we kept kosher which means we didn’t eat meat in fast-food restaurants. Is this part of the reason? Are the processed foods of today considerably worse than the processed foods of the 80s? What other factors are there in the enormous rise in childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes in children? Does anyone know?