Thursday, March 31, 2011

Following the leader

Conventional wisdom goes that Americans are more likely to binge drink because Americans don't have a culture of drink, so when they get to college and alcohol is suddenly everywhere, they have no idea how to handle it. Like so many other pieces of conventional wisdom, it's wrong, maybe: the question is how frequently the subject drinks more than 5 drinks in a row. I'm not entirely sure if a few glasses of wine with dinner, followed by a couple beers with friends as you gripe over the local soccer team, necessarily counts as downing five in a row in the same way that American students tend to think about it. Healthy? Unquestionably not. But it's definitely not the same as doing vodka shots on an empty stomach.

The report has its shares of flaws (bonus points to people who pick them out) but it does make you wonder how important behavioral modeling is, in terms of adopting bad (or good) habits. I mean, Karel's parents are both heavy smokers--graciously abstaining or going to another room when young kids are around--but you'd never see him within ten feet of a cigarette. My mom always had a healthy (and ample) dinner on the table at 6 pm, but I really can't be arsed to cook when we've got a freezer full of leftovers. Okay, I do make a fresh hot dinner for Karel when he's home, but that's only about half the time, and half of that time, he's not hungry.

The question is increasingly relevant when it comes to the issue of childhood obesity. As of two years ago, although obesity issues had stabilized in adults, it continued to increase amongst kids, the latest numbers showing that a (relatively modest) 15% of boys and 18% of girls are too big for their britches. Dieting shows in the Netherlands are therefore a bit less ego-centric than their counterparts in the US--the emphasis is on the whole family and being healthy, rather than straight-up losing weight. The most outrageously-titled show "Help, Ons Kind is te Dik" (Help, Our Kid is too Fat--Dutch openness at its best, eh?) has dieticians, doctors, and cooks prescribing their cures for an unpleasantly-plump child, and counselors to formulate productive reactions to temper tantrums and incorporate physical activities into their daily routine, and on top of all that, support groups for the parents.

The show itself is quite dull, and the most interesting aspect of it is that the parents are often not the paragon of active, healthy adults themselves. Moms have a hard time incorporating vegetables into the dinner, and parents also have to fight the malaise of biking to work in the rain. While some parents are indeed the fit-and-healthy kind, most of them look fit to burst an aneurysm. And yet the kids do well by the program, losing anywhere from 3 to 12 kg (modest first steps).

It works, I think, because the show leaves no stone unturned when it comes to tackling childhood obesity. All the angles are attacked, and the result is that kids are the better for it. Could such things work in the US? Possibly, though I'm doubtful of it. There's no question that everything we know about what makes children fat can be addressed. It's a big, and open question, as to whether we have the drive to fix it.


  1. I believe that responsible, moderated behavior is best taught through modeling. I grew up in a household where alcohol was drunk twice a week - Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch (religiously important meals in Judaism). Each time, each of us, kids included, had one drink (for the kids, it was more of a sip). Once in a rare while, my parents would get a beer and share it with all of us. (Two parents, one beer) The most I've ever had in one evening in my adult life is three drinks. My sister has likewise, never been drunk. Each of my brothers has been really drunk once, and maybe buzzed a few more times. Since we always saw drinking in moderation and we were always allowed to drink in moderation, it seems natural to drink in moderation. The first time I bought my own beer in college, I looked for someone to share it with - the idea of drinking a whole beer myself seemed kind of... gluttonous.

    Eating peanut butter from the jar with a spoon, though, is something my mom did when I was growing up. The best I've been able to do with that is use a smaller spoon and do it more rarely. When I have ice cream in the house, I eat all of it - my mom used to. Right now, I don't touch it, but when I do, I know I'll have to buy it a cone at a time at the ice cream shop, because a pint is too much temptation.

  2. Interesting points, all. My parents almost never drank any alcohol--I remember that they kept a case of beer for my grandmother when she came to visit, but for the most part it was a dry house. Not out of any conviction that alcohol was evil or anything, it just never really occurred to them that it existed. So my brother and sister both had ample experiences with getting hammered in college. Personally, I inherited some defective liver enzyme, so I pass out before I can manage to get drunk :-)

  3. Some how I think it is us Brits who are more likely to binge drink

  4. I'm pretty sure that it's the Irish skewing the average :-D