By: Pamela Yee, M.D.
A photograph of a beautiful, vibrant, 22-year old woman with the following headline recently caught my eye: Colon and Rectal Cancers Rising in Young People (1). As reported by The New York TImes, the American Cancer Society cites an increase in the number of young adults developing colon cancer, a disease most associated with that of an aging population.
Interestingly, researchers are at a loss to explain this rise.
The connection is obvious to me.
I strongly believe our diet foremost, and plethora of toxic environmental exposures, cannot be ignored. These exposures, both food and environment, begin in the womb and continue throughout childhood.
The larger question is, how can we collectively get our children to develop good eating habits to set the stage for optimal health?
What’s Changed? The MEDIA!
As a kid of the 70’s I witnessed the early blossoming of processed foods. Doritos, Lucky Charms, Kool Aid and Twinkies were common kids’ staples and few spoke of organic food. But, coming from a family that immigrated from China, these foods were kept at bay since my Grandma home-cooked almost all meals. There was no need, or pressure, for convenience foods — they were seen as treats.
Also, the art of corporations marketing to children had just began taking off. The allure of characters beckoning children to sample their spaceship-shaped waffles or cookies bathed in food coloring could not readily reach children through TV and other media. I believe the kids I grew up with benefitted from this relative media innocence.
A crucial point in 1980 changed everything. The Federal Trade Commission had been trying to set restrictions on advertising to children. Their argument was that young children could not discern commercials from entertainment programs and older children could not understand the long-term health consequences of eating lots of sugar. But pressure from the sugar, toy, candy and cigarette industries and farmers growing wheat for sugared cereals, all swooped down to prevent this from happening.
In 1980, Congress passed an Act that “mandated that the FTC would no longer have any authority whatsoever to regulate advertising and marketing to children, leaving markets virtually free to target kids as they saw fit,” wrote Anna Lappe, author and food advocate.
This one act launched the onslaught of marketing to children, and morphed into the complex state it is today where movies create characters which then show up on cereal boxes, plastic toys and candy wrappers. [To read more about this pivotal act in detail, you can read Anna Lappe’s take on it here.
It’s surprising there was no extended commentary on the New York Time’s report on why this increase in colorectal cancers are being seen in young adults, and that the reasons are “baffling.” To me it all boils down to the environmental change that has occurred over the last four decades. And if food is the “medicine” that we put in our bodies all day, processed by our gut and microbiome, it seems that there would be an association between diet and incidence of disease. Of course we can wait and wait for further studies to elucidate or we can do something about it now.
HOW TO HELP OUR CHILDREN
From a preventative sense, one of the most potent things we can do for ourselves, and for our children, is to set a behavior we want modeled. The younger you start with children, obviously the better. But, discussions with older children about why and how food impacts how they feel are powerful. They may not take to them right away, but you are sending a verbal message that you then reinforce by walking the talk. If mom and dad are eating sugar or convenient processed foods on a regular basis how can you expect your children to take you seriously?
Another way we can help our children is to limit media. Easier said than done, I know as tech is the easy babysitter we employ so that, as parents, we can do chores around the home or placate an angry toddler on an airplane. But the more we rely on that easy solution the more detriment it imposes on our children, not only because of the advertising and marketing, but also on the very relationships parents have with their own children.
Catherine Steiner-Adair Ed.D, a clinical psychologist and expert in child development and education, wrote the book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Child and Family Relationships in the Digital Age after extensive interviews with children and parents on how social media and technology change the way children learn, grow and make connections with others. She also gives advice to parents and educators on how to deflect the detrimental effects of media on our children.
These suggestions can all translate to better eating — not only because of the reduction of media influences — but because it will force us to pause, parents included. When both parents and their children employ awareness and make conscious choices surrounding food, media and their relationships with one another, family health automatically comes to the forefront. Suddenly you will find that you’re at the dinner table, without your devices, and enjoying a meal together, conversation included.
Meet Dr. Yee:
Pamela Yee, MD is an Integrative Physician at Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, NY. Dr. Yee has a special interest in integrative cancer care and creates highly personalized treatment plans for each of her patients. She lives in Nyack NY where she and her husband manage their own organic micro-farm.
CLICK HERE to learn more about Dr. Yee.