Saturday, February 02, 2008

Science fair

I just finished my portion of Susie's science fair project.

Let that sink in for a moment.

See, these science fair projects are serious business. Last year, Susie and two friends teamed up to do a pretty good experiment (the effects of different liquids on tooth enamel), and they took third place. I'm convinced that they would have taken first if I had been more proactive and helped them more with the graphic design of the project.

This year, Susie has a new partner and a new topic. The two girls chose nutrition as their topic (at my suggestion...after all, I have good resources at work), and their experiment was good: for one week, they ate a typical diet and kept a food diary. For week two, they first planned a "balanced" diet based on the recommendations at www.mypyramid.gov (good stuff there, by the way), then kept a food diary again. The food diary was input (mostly by them, but also by me) into www.my-calorie-counter.com, a good-enough site that calculates calories, fiber, fat, and the like.

My portion of the project involved taking that data and feeding it into an Excel spreadsheet, then creating a zillion graphs depicting the recommended calories, fat grams, etc., comparing them to the actual calories, etc., consumed, then overlaying the percentage above or below the RDA the girls consumed.

I learned something that I didn't tell the girls. True, it's not a scientific sample, but the results played out as I expected. Susie, as a middle-class white kid with post-graduate-school-educated parents, had a pretty darn good diet in her "control" week. Her nutritional intake was very similar in weeks one and two. Her partner, on the other hand, is economically disadvantaged, African American, and has a less-than-stable family situation. I don't know her mother's educational attainment, but I suspect it's minimal based on the contact I've had with her. And this girl's diet? Is a mess. It's almost a textbook diet for how to get heart disease, an epidemic health problem in the lower income African American community. Her sodium intake is generally 2-3 times the recommended daily limit. Her sugar intake is high. Her saturated fat is high. Her fiber consumption is about half of what it should be.

But what's most disturbing about her results is that her intake of "bad" stuff (fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar) was markedly WORSE during the Food Pyramid week. I'm not sure why. Perhaps her mother was not able to provide a balanced diet that adhered to the eating plan the girls had designed. I know her mother did not understand the plan, because she called me last Sunday evening, after I'd dropped the child off at home, asking me, "What is this mess she just handed me?" The "mess" was her daughter's food chart. I went over the project with her, explaining the experiment and what they were trying to accomplish. I explained portioning and what foods needed to be consumed in what quantities. The family does not have a computer, so I couldn't direct her to a website.

I talked to the girls today about their results as I was creating the charts. I was gentle when I told Susie's friend about the issues in her diet. I explained that she needed to look at product nutritional labels when she and her mom went to the grocery store. And I beat my favorite dead horse. Lunchables? Are the worst thing in the world that kids can eat. Except maybe rat poison.

The girls did a great job writing up their findings. And I'm about to head to the office to print all these beautiful charts (in color), as well as some pages from the food pyramid site. They'll put the whole thing together and (hopefully) win a prize next week.

I hope they learned something. And make changes accordingly. As they wrote in their report, "It's hard not to eat too much salt and sugar."

2 comments:

Brad said...

I couldn't agree more. I think I've always done a decent job of monitoring fat and cholesterol content in the foods we eat, but recently I've started adding sodium to the list. Most canned foods (even vegetables) contain 25% of the a person's RDA of sodium in a single serving. Just another reason to buy fresh or frozen minimally processed foods as much as possible.

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