Raised on Sugar: A Nutrition Conversation Between a Millennial and Her Baby Boomer Dad

Before you read this post, check out this Buzzfeed quiz:
The Hardest “Would You Rather” For ’90s Kids

I stumbled upon this quiz while scrolling through my Facebook. I love anything 90s related so I was pumped to take this stupid quiz. As I decided whether “I’d rather scoop” Dunkaroos or Handi-Snacks, I felt my mouth start to salivate. OH MY GOD I WANT A COSMIC BROWNIE. FRUIT-BY-THE-FOOT. YES. FUN DIP. PIZZA LUNCHABLE. !@#$%&*)(&%$#

Why is my body so f***ing excited to see these terrible foods? Foods I would now NEVER purchase at the grocery store. Is it just nostalgia or something more? The bigger question is, why was I raised on such nutritionally god-awful food? DIDN’T MY PARENTS LOVE ME?

Looking Back

A few of my friends and I have this theory that our parents were raised on very fundamental, boring foods. Think rice, potatoes, Spam…anything cheap. As they started having kids, the variety of food increased and the price decreased. Our parents wanted to “give us something better” than what they had and in many ways, that meant providing as much food, with as much variety as possible. I’m sure if you asked them at the time, their kid’s health and nutrition was just as important as it is to parents these days. The difference being the abundance of nutrition resources available to us now versus then, and more importantly, the way nutrition is viewed now versus then.

Our parents were told that fat is the enemy. Fat-free, “fruit,” and low calorie meant healthy. If you look at food through this lens, fruit-by-the-foot is a superfood, a godsend. Foods like nuts, avocado, and olive oil = obesity. The old food pyramid had bread prioritized over vegetables. In fact, it recommended 6 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta and 3 servings of vegetables. That same pyramid places cakes and cookies in the same section as olive oil. I remember learning about the food pyramid as a kid and coming to the conclusion that pizza was a pretty great option for a well-balanced meal. I also remember my mom telling me Angel Food Cake was a healthy option because it was fat free. Damnit, now I want Angel Food Cake.


With documentaries like Fed Up and The Secrets of Sugar, this information is becoming more widespread. Whether they care or not, I think the majority of my friends know that an avocado is a better option than a fruit-by-the-foot. I’m not so sure about baby boomers though. The ones I’m around seem to be stuck in their ways or are hypercritical of our millennial hippy-dippy lifestyle.

So I thought I’d talk to one of my favorite baby boomers to get some insight. Like me, my dad has experimented with nearly every diet in the book. He’s done more research about nutrition, health, and aging than anyone I know. Despite being well-versed in health and nutrition, I still find him regularly eating white bread with processed ham and swiss cheese or an entire pint of Haagen-Dazs. What’s the deal?

I sent my dad a list of interview questions to learn more about his nutrition beliefs and why he eats the way he does. I’ll post some tidbits from them below with some of my responses.

Q1: What did your diet look like growing up? What was a typical meal like for your family? What was a typical snack?

DAD: I’m surprised by how little I remember about what we ate when we were growing up in Bloomington. With seven kids and not much money, meals were more often about quantity with little regard for quality. I remember eating a lot of mashed potatoes, but they were usually “instant” mashed potatoes, that came in a box and you added water or milk. My dad often made breakfast on the weekends, which usually included oatmeal or pancakes. The rest of the time we were eating Cheerios, Rice Krispies and other cereals out of a box. A lot of families of that generation had a lot of kids and faced a similar problem. Plus the culture was less focused on nutrition. Frozen foods were a new thing, and margarine was supposed to be a healthier alternative to butter. We didn’t have microwaves back then and dinners were probably a lot of hot dogs and hamburgers with mashed potatoes with ketchup. TV dinners were invented around then and I remember thinking of them as a special meal. We were always excited when dad came home with bags of green grapes. I’m sure there was more variety than this, but meals were not designed around a “well-balanced meal”. 

Mmm.. what a treat…

Q2: What did you believe a “healthy, well-balanced meal” looked like when you were younger? Where did this belief come from?

DAD: I had no concept of nutrition or healthy meals back then. We obviously got enough to eat and my parents did the best they could. But I didn’t take much interest in nutrition until I was in high school, where we learned some basics and I became interested in the same things most young adults take an interest in. Part of that was a concern about my weight, which hasn’t changed much in 50 years. I’ve always been about 20 pounds heavier than I wanted to be. 

I read a book by Adelle Davis called “Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit” and tried to learn more about nutrition and health. I became interested in organic foods and farming, vitamins and supplements, and healthier lifestyles.

Q3: How has this belief changed? What does a “healthy, well-balanced meal” look like for you today?

DAD: Nowadays I try to plan meals with low carbs, a couple of vegetables, and pork chops, steak, or chicken. Even when we go out, I rarely order dessert. I’ve come to appreciate good quality food so much more that I don’t have much appetite for a lot of sweets. If I am going to have a dessert, I want the best, whether it’s home-cooked Sweet Martha’s cookies or Haagen-Dazs ice cream. 

ME: This is awesome. It’s also something I noticed when I was staying with my host family in Europe. They didn’t really consciously watch what they ate, they didn’t really meal plan or calorie count. They ate LOTS of carbs, pasta almost every day for lunch. But the food was higher quality, usually paired with many fresh vegetables from their garden and simple olive oil or wine sauces. They had dessert fairly regularly but dessert was usually a piece of fruit, a handful of dates, coffee, or an extra glass of wine. Sometimes she would make desserts but they were usually a lot less sugary than our desserts in America. I remember one night we had homemade preserved peaches with homemade plain yogurt. It was really tasty. 

Q4: What were your and mom’s thoughts about nutrition as you raised Shawn and I? How did you decide what to put in the cupboards? How did you plan meals? Pack lunches?

DAD: When I cooked for my family and you guys were still at home, I enjoyed trying to present a balanced meal, but kids are kids and I never wanted to be a food Nazi - “You are not leaving this table until you eat your broccoli” - so if you wanted mushy chicken noodle soup or pizzas or SpaghettiO’s (and a One Step Cookie for dessert), you got it. I think kids are able to handle unbalanced meals much better than adults. That’s why you can see lots of poor people with huge parents and skinny kids. 

ME: Really interesting point. It’s also why I think I had a hard transition going from a kid who ate unhealthy (and ate A LOT) to an adult who had to watch portions and stop looking at Hoho’s as a legitimate dessert after each meal.

DAD (continuing his response to the previous question): It’s not something we discussed much. It was all kinda random. If I remember right, it was unusual that all four of us would sit down at the table and have dinner together. With my work schedule and the way Judy’s schedule changed over the years, along with school activities and the rest, it was often a matter of what you guys wanted or asked for. I had fun packing your lunches and it was a challenge to keep them somewhat nutritious and still give you stuff I knew you’d like. I remember you complained when I tried something different that you weren’t used to (like a ham sandwich). 

ME: That’s because ham sandwiches are nasty. But for real, I can’t imagine this was easy for you which is why I asked. In middle school, we had ala carte lunch so my food nearly every day consisted of a soft pretzel with nacho cheese and a bag of crispy M&Ms. I got to high school and realized I should probably be eating better which meant I started packing my lunch. Aka you started packing my lunch. I didn’t like sandwiches, didn’t really have a place to warm up leftovers, etc. which meant I ate a bunch of “100-calorie packs…" a product I viewed as relatively healthy at the time.

Q5: On a larger scale, why do you think obesity is such an issue in America?

DAD: The biggest cause of obesity is what Americans have been taught about nutrition by the government and the medical community over the last 50 years. The whole low fat/high carbs theory about preventing heart disease and losing weight was based on flawed studies. And the emphasis on cutting calories rather than cutting carbs only makes things worse. This is beginning to change, but it’s too late to help a whole generation of baby boomers who grew up on instant mashed potatoes and margarine. It also leads to type two diabetes. It’s great that people are learning more about nutrition, and the Internet has been helpful in getting the word out about the problems with the old food pyramid. Another problem is that high carb foods (even when advertised as low fat) are cheap, easy to store, and available everywhere. Plus they often taste good with high sugar and salt flavors. So even when people are short on money, they buy the cheap stuff that tastes good. Once kids grow up and their metabolism slows down, the pounds start to pile on.

ME: I don’t have much to say to this besides I agree. It’s cool that we’ve both taken our own paths to learning about health & nutrition and have kind of landed in the same spot. Even if our day-to-day diets and lifestyles look quite different, I think many of our nutrition choices are rooted in the same philosophies.

Q6: Is there anything you’ve learned about health, food, nutrition, etc. that has shocked you? Have you changed your mind about anything major over the years?

DAD: Nothing really shocking, but learning how wrong the government and the doctors were about calories versus carbs was a big revelation. Obesity may be our nation’s worst physical health problem and it is caused by what we’ve been told in schools and in the media for half a century. It is entirely curable. But our entire food delivery network has been built around eating more carbs, fewer calories, and less fat. I cringe when I see low fat snacks and meals advertised on TV.

Gummy bears…one of my favorite "healthy” candy options as a kid

It’s hard to wrap this up since I think this conversation is just the start of many to come. I wanted to open the door to discuss why we eat the way we do and what influence our childhood, financial situations, and cultures have on our nutrition philosophies. I encourage others to have similar conversations with their friends and families and share their stories – at least with me :)

My dad ended on this note, which made me happy:

DAD: I just want to say that I’m proud of how you have taken the time to study and learn about nutrition, and you are doing things in exactly the right way. Try a different diet, don’t get crazy about it, but see how it makes you feel and look. No preaching to others, but open to discussing what you’ve learned and experienced.

I’ve always respected the way he treats his personal “nutrition experiments” so it’s nice that he can see that that has rubbed off on me.


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