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Think Outside the Box...of Cereal

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"Children still get one spoonful of sugar in every three spoonfuls of cereal. These [children ’s cereals] are not nutritious options that children should consume every day,” said Jennifer L. Harris, the lead researcher and the director of marketing initiatives at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

A three-year update on the Rudd Center’s Cereal FACTS Report reveals cereal companies have increased advertising to children for their least nutritious products, despite pressure from government agencies, health advocates like Dr. Mark Hyman and the Rudd Center to promote healthier options to children.

Given this discrepancy between what passes for food and junk in the mode of starting your day off with a balanced breakfast, it’s not surprising that the food industry capitalizes, according to Dr. Hyman, by compounding food in “secret ways the food industry will not share or make public.” He further states, “We are biologically wired to crave these foods and eat as much of them as possible. We all know about cravings, but what does the science tell us about food and addiction, and what are the legal and policy implications if certain food is in fact addictive?”

After all, addiction is like a weed—once it takes root, it can be a pain to pull. So, how does addiction take root? Or maybe a better question is: When does addiction take root? According to many researchers and dietician experts, it began when we were children, innocently watching Saturday morning cartoons, eating a bowl of Lucky Charms or Frosted Flakes as our programs seamlessly blend with cereal advertisements—much like the blend of empty carbohydrates filling our bowls to the brim.

Let me take you back to my childhood as a fat kid that would eventually grow into a fat adult. I would wake up early and make myself a bowl of Lucky Charms, occasionally watching cartoons while my parents were still asleep; it was easy (yet making life difficult). Then my parents would wake up and make breakfast; so sometimes on the weekend, I would eat two meals in the morning. As an adult, that routine didn’t change much. It was convenient, and I was unknowingly hooked on sugar. I was also a sleep-eater that would wake up in the middle of night and eat a bowl of cereal.

Thankfully, I overcame these habits and cravings when I asked myself, "Is sugar a drug?" Many experts say yes. The sugar industry is running amok of our children’s lives, education system, healthcare system, and susceptible working-class communities as a whole, which are all related.

Just follow the money—the lifeblood of the beast—and it's not hard to tell that the sugar industry is as filthy as they come. I sit here writing this column imagining Count Chocula sitting in a boardroom rubbing his hands together with an evil joker grin spreading across his face, plotting on ways to get our Little Ones hooked on his surplus of sugar and grains.

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As an American Indian, I think about how my ancestors saw food, as medicine; they would say that this is bad medicine —dialectical analysis, based on generations of practice and logic, a traditional philosophy that is often celebrated but seldom practiced. Could it be that addiction lulls us into a collective state of denial?

So what has the sugary cereal industry been doing with its mountain of capital, according to Yale’s Rudd report:

  1. Almost 1/3 of children are obese or overweight
  2. In 2011, the average 6- to 11-year-old saw more than 700 television ads for cereals; the average 2- to 5-year-old saw 595 such ads.
  3. 45 percent promoted General Mills’ Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Honey Nut Cheerios, Lucky Charms and Reeses Puffs; and Kellog’s Froot Loops.

According to Kelly Brownwell, director of the Rudd Center, to the cereal industry, making a profit “means selling junk to children.” Yes, cereal companies do offer more “nutritional” cereals marketed to adults, but not a lot has changed in the vein of advertising junk to children. In fact, they are spending increasingly more.

The solution to this onslaught of propaganda is to rebel by feeding your kids healthy fruits, vegetables and proteins for breakfast. Think outside the box. For instance, why not start the day with some leftover fish, nuts, the occasional omlette, or mashed sweet potato. According to leading researchers, like Robb Wolf, our ancestors never ate cereal anyway. So how can we believe that we should be able to consume this junk and walk away unscathed? Stand up, fight back. Think outside the box of cereal.

David Bender, Standing Rock Sioux/Bad River Chippewa, is the community science facilitator for the American Indian Center of Chicago. Read David 's article Native Family Returns to its Roots to Combat Poor Health and Food Addiction.