Back to School Lunch Scares

It’s back to school season, which for many parents means spending money on new clothes, shuttling young people from sports games to ballet, and increasingly, worrying about the kind of nutrition their kids are getting when they’re away from the home.

This is understandable since they are inundated with hyperbolic headlines like “sugary drinks kill,” “death by salt,” and “processed meat causes cancer”. It’s enough to add a few gray hairs to any parent’s head. While it’s important to teach kids about proper nutrition and make sure they’re eating a balanced diet in and outside of the home, this kind of inflammatory rhetoric doesn’t help parents make healthy and realistic choices for their children.

So, here are a few tips to help you relax as you send your kids off into the great wide nutritional unknown.

Soda won’t kill your kids. There is no doubt that excessive consumption of sugary drinks through soda or fruit juice can easily lead to a calorie surplus and weight gain. However, the occasional can of sports drink after a soccer game isn’t likely to cause any damage.

You may have seen the headline announcing that a study says “Sugary Drinks May Kill 184,000 People Each Year.” It’s pretty scary, but it’s also pretty speculative and its methodology is questionable. The researchers used data from 62 self-reported surveys from only 51 countries between 1980 and 2010. They used “sugar availability,” to calculate consumption, presumably to account for the counties without adequate data. Rebecca Goldin, a Professor of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason University and Director of (a group of researchers who work to evaluate and interpret statistical research for accurate reporting in the media) pointed out the many reasons people should be skeptical of this study, including a lack of transparency about how the researchers accounted for missing data such as sugar sources in the diet other than sugary drinks.

They also failed to say how addressed the uncertainty in the proportion of diabetes/cardiovascular disease caused by sugary drink consumption, and the uncertainty of the proportion of deaths caused by these diseases. When someone goes into the hospital with a heart attack and dies, it’s very difficult to say if it was his five decades of smoking, sedentary lifestyle, or the liter of coke he drank every week.

As Harry Cheadle over at Vice put it “X behavior causes Y deaths” headlines are always popular because people like numbers, and statements like that at least appear to quantify bad behaviors. Never mind if the numbers don't really make any sense.”

Neither will salt. Sodium is the second most popular buzz word for health advocates after sugary drinks. The USDA and the CDC have, for years, been pushing Americans to reduce the amount of salt in our diet—especially when it comes to kids.

They believe we should consume less than less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day—about 1000 milligrams less than Americans’ average daily consumption. They continue to make this recommendation despite the fact that a study they commissioned found that sodium consumption under 2,300 mg of sodium didn’t correlate with a decreased risk of heart disease, stroke or death, but that sodium intake less than 1,500 mg was associated with increased risk of death for certain groups.

Many have called for an end to the “war on salt,” because, for one, it just doesn’t work. Research has found that people unconsciously select foods to meet their physiologically determined need for sodium. The worldwide average for sodium consumption is 3,726 mg and eerily consistent overtime and throughout the world. Even the intensive interventions did little to alter sodium consumption or reduce blood pressure. It is true that a person consuming sodium in extremely high quantities might be at greater risk for certain diseases, but research seems to show that the problem isn’t too much sodium, but rather too little potassium that puts your health at risk. Sodium at the higher levels increases risk of heart attack and stroke, but potassium lowers the risk.

If you make sure your child is getting a balance of nutrients at home, it’s very unlikely that you need to worry about the sodium content of his or her school lunch. If it was high enough to truly cause a problem (i.e. over 10,000 mg) it’s likely that it would be too salty to stomach.

Processed meat in moderation likely won’t cause cancer. Back in 2013 a study out of the University of Zurich started something of a media firestorm by claiming that eating processed meat is responsible for 1 in 30 deaths. Right away, those numbers should ring alarm bells. High meat consumption, especially processed meat, is associated with a less healthy lifestyle. But after adjusting for smoking, physical activity, and body mass index, the researchers still found that the red and processed meat-eaters had a higher risk of cancer than other groups.

The problem is that they only addressed 3 confounding factors. It goes without saying that cancer is complex and we know very little about the many factors that increase risk. For example, genetics (Ashkenazi Jews, for example, have higher rates of colorectal and pancreatic cancer), stress, exposure to radiation, or previous viral infections (those who’ve had mononucleosis have a higher risk of Hodgkin’s disease).

Perhaps meat eaters have less stomach room for the foods that are higher in vitamin D like fish, fortified grains, tofu, and eggs (vitamin D deficiency is linked with advanced cancers). Again, I wouldn’t worry too much about packing a cold-cut sandwich for your kid’s lunch, but it’s more important to make sure they’re eating a balanced diet overall.

As I’ve written in the past, the government is a very bad nutritionist. Journalists are even worse at giving nutritional advice because they’re more concerned with clicks than your health. The bottom line is to try to feed your kids a balanced diet rather than freaking out about the latest nutritional demon.