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You want fries with that?

You have no idea how much I’m looking forward to tomorrow at 8:35 a.m. That will be a good five minutes after the start of the parental summer relief program known best as Back to School. I’m counting down the minutes as we speak.

With the return to school, public debates over what children should eat and how parents should or shouldn’t step in have intensified. Obesity, the selling out of school cafeterias, new restrictions on sodas and junk food in said cafeterias, and the diet of choice at home are the topics of the day–all underlined with a sense of rising panic.

This year more than any other I can remember, reporters, bloggers, doctors, models, political figures, and just about everyone else has jumped on the bandwagon to report the ugly facts that were excused for years.

All the statistics are in–or pretty much so, and they boil down to this: We’re facing a tidal wave of blubber.

With it comes a tidal wave of early heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and more. How early? Physicians are seeing a rise in the diseases of middle age–something that, 20 years ago, had been successfully pushed back by an average of 10 years, from age 50 or so to age 60 and up for a first heart attack. We thought we were making progress. But for the past 10 to 15 years,  these diseases have started popping up in school children–Type II diabetes, kidney stones, high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure. No way should a 10-year-old be facing these threats.   No wonder parents and everyone else are panicked–the studies we have aren’t giving us a single, easy-to-deal-with  definitive  guide on how to stop the juggernaut. They mostly tell us that it keeps on rolling.

But the mystery of what to do really isn’t that mysterious. Take for example the responses to Frank Bruni’s recent article in the New York Times on feeding children. Some come from doctors on the front lines, others from nutritionists and fresh-food-in-schools activists, discussing different facets of the problem, but they come to a number of sensible recommendations you could probably have named yourself without much struggle.

The conclusions?

Sodas should be cut out altogether from children’s (and probably everyone’s) daily diet. Not just for calories (250ish for a 20-oz bottle–and why is it 20 0z these days? used to be 12 was the standard) but for sodium (about 100 mg per 12-oz can, whether full-cal or diet, 200+ for the 20-oz).

Fruit juices with a pretty picture on the box are nowhere near qualifying as actual fruit. Not even with added vitamin C.

And exercise time, including outdoor recess–something most schools have cut back in the past decades–makes a big difference that’s generally overlooked in the school lunch debates.

So far, no great surprises. But they do mention one more item, also no great surprise–fast food in the school cafeterias.  Nobody seems to have trouble zeroing in on french fries as the worst offender. Are they right or is this a replay of the cupcake wars? Is the french fry being unjustly accused, as the vendors claim?

School cafeterias have flocked to the fries phenomenon because fries come frozen–no spoilage, they’re made with potatoes–dirt cheap and sorta kinda vegetable, and they’re easy and really quick to cook. And they’re popular; both kids and grownups will eat them first, so there’s not a lot of waste at the end of the day.

French fries in all their variations–curly fries, cheese fries, chili fries, cheeto-fries, bacon fries, (ok, I’m drifting here)–have become ever-present, even automatic, major players on the fast-food menu. Check out the Reuters slideshow on fast food; you can see the fries practically taking over the mind of the news photographer on assignment, and the other food–meat, fish, chicken, etc.–is a mere afterthought.

Thirty years ago, you had to pay for fries separately, and you got a small packet–maybe 20 thin fries. Then again, when McDonalds introduced the quarter-pounder in the 1970s, its selling point was that it was bigger than their standard burger. You also had to salt the fries yourself–but at least you had the choice of salt OR ketchup. Then the fast food chains started bundling burgers with fries and a large soda at a combo price that was higher but seemed like a deal. And they started salting all the fries with a heavy hand the instant they were out of the fryer. It was really popular (salt always is) and fries really took off. It became a habit.Then it became almost unthinkable to order just a standard burger, without a double patty or bacon and cheese and special sauce. Now you’d never get away from the counter without the fries and the soda. Some chains won’t sell you the burger without them.

But are fries really that bad, or just taking a bum rap? Can they be part of a balanced lunch at school, or are they insidious grease-and-salt bombs  masquerading as a vegetable side dish? Thanks to the new New York City and California nutrition labeling laws, we finally have the tools to get their number.

Go online and check out the nutrition counts for the standard chain restaurant menu items at your restaurant of choice. It doesn’t have to be the top 3 burger chains, even smaller regional ones show the same general pattern.

What you’ll probably find is a spreadsheet that’s been shrunk so you need to zoom in to read–that’s the first clue the news isn’t good and management knows it. It’s also usually a PDF file–another step removed from simple viewing.

Check the online nutrition chart for your fast food chain restaurant of choice, and you’ll find that the automatically-assumed side of fries often doubles the total calories of the meal and doubles-to-triples the sodium. To the tune of 500-1000 extra calories and 500-1000 mg extra sodium.

Skipping the fries won’t erase the yards of grease in the burger itself–you’d have to cut back to the old-fashioned plain quarter-pounder single, if that’s still even being offered, and skip the cheez, the bacon, and the special sauce to do that. But leaving off the fries clearly helps bring it down out of the stratosphere.

At school, cutting out the fries (and the sodas, and the juice drinks) means cutting out a major disruptor of children’s diet and appetite. If the fries aren’t there to be the first grab, and the offerings are limited to whole foods, not concession stand snacks, kids stand a much better chance of choosing and eating something that will actually provide protein, fiber, carbohydrates, and vitamins and minerals–the things all the appetite cues tell your brain you’re getting even when all you’re really getting is grease, salt and starch.

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