Random Thoughts – Randocity!

What is Critical Thinking?

Posted in howto, rationale, reasoning by commorancy on February 6, 2021
The Thinker by Rodin

Critical Thinking, when taught in a classroom setting, teaches something that approximates critical thinking, but isn’t actually critical thinking. In fact, what is taught is more deductive or logical reasoning than critical thinking. Let’s explore.

This article is 6647 words. At an average reading speed of 200 words per minute, this article will take slightly more than 33 minutes to read it. Grab your favorite beverage and let’s get started.

Critical Thinking Tests

Here’s a test example:

“Some men are definitely intelligent, others are definitely not intelligent, but of intermediate men, we should say, ‘intelligent’? Yes, I think, so or no, I shouldn’t be inclined to call him intelligent.”

Which of the following reflects the intention of the writer well?

A. To call men intelligent who are not strikingly so must be to use the concept with undue imprecision
B. Every empirical concept has a degree of vagueness
C. Calling someone intelligent or not depends upon one’s whim
D. There is no need to be as indecisive as the writer of the above

While there is an answer to this question, I’m not going to go into what it is just now for a number of reasons which will become apparent shortly. Instead, let’s analyze this type of question for its appropriateness for critical thinking skills.

First, let me start by saying that the grammar on this question is absolutely atrocious. Without proper grammar, you can’t make heads or tails of what the question is actually asking. The grammar forces you to trip over the question which then forces you to become distracted by the grammar. This fact alone leads to confusion and interpretation problems. Once we’re off track for the interpretation, we can’t easily arrive at a correct answer. Is this a test writer trick? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Second, this question has multiple choice answers. I vehemently dislike multiple choice answers for a number of reasons. The first reason to dislike multiple choice answers is that they offer a limited selection of choices. You can’t be free to think through the question critically… which is the whole point in this exercise. Instead, you must keep your thoughts constrained to only 1 of 4 answers. On the plus side, the question author didn’t include the absolutely horrid trick answers, “All of the above”, “None of the above”, “Answers 3 and 4” or any similar type answer tricks.

The second half of the second reason to dislike multiple choice answers is that you must decipher what the question author is asking you to do and then keep your thoughts constrained to only those 4 answers… even though your own critical thoughts may lead you to additional answer conclusions not included. This means, you have to put yourself into the shoes of the question author to try and determine how the question author expects you to answer this question. In fact, this makes answering this question less about performing actual critical thinking and more about trying to get into the head of the question author to determine the test author’s motives. That’s not a critical thinking exercise at all. No.

That’s test taking 101. Meaning, it actually becomes more important to understand the test author’s tricks than it is to actually utilize critical thinking skills to answer the question. This is an important distinction to understand about test taking. This is why multiple choice test taking is less about what you know and more about how best to decipher the test author’s motives for the inclusion of the question… and more importantly, how they are expecting you to respond (correctly or incorrectly) to their biased notions. In other words, test authors leave you just enough threads of logic to lead you in multiple directions. Only one thread, if you follow it, leads to the correct answer. Other thought threads, if you are tricked by the question author’s lead, will lead you down the the wrong answer path.

This means you may be betrayed by your very own thought processes. You may postulate the wrong answer simply because the question author led you down the wrong path based on reaching the wrong conclusion. Again, this is test taking 101. You have to become a savvy test taker to understand that the test author is intentionally leading you down the wrong answer path. You have to be smart enough to understand this aspect of test taking to rethink your conclusion to lead you to the correct answer. Again, this has nothing whatever to do with critical thinking skills and everything to do with avoiding test author traps.

Third, this snippet of text is too small to draw any real conclusions. It’s like taking two sentences from the Star Wars novel and then expecting you to understand the author’s intention behind the story. You can’t do this with only two sentences. This question text lacks the bigger context of why it exists in a larger text. If the “author” behind this question included this small statement in a romance novel, for example, and was then talking about a specific character with this statement, you could much more easily draw conclusions to the correct answer because you have wider context surrounding its reason to exist. However, pulling a small snippet out of a larger story, then expecting a test taker to rationalize conclusions without the necessary larger context means jumping to conclusions mostly by guessing. Guessing isn’t the way to critical thinking. Guesswork is best left for situations where the outcome is more or less meaningless. Guesswork shouldn’t be part of or required as a strategy when taking any standardized multiple choice test of any kind. For test taking, you either know the answer or you don’t.

Free Form vs Multiple Choice

Free form answers range in difficulty, but at the same time, require more actual critical thinking. You have to be able to articulate into words the answer to the question. These word answers can then be read by the teacher to understand the student’s thought rationale. That’s the point in critical thinking. For some, writing a free form answer can be easier. For others, it can be more difficult. One thing is certain. Writing a free form answer means you’re not constrained to a limited set of answers… which takes trick answers by wily question authors off of the table. It also takes misinterpretation issues off the table. However, it won’t solve poor grammar problems, such as in the question above.

There, I Fixed It

The question above should have been correctly worded as follows:

“Some men are definitely intelligent, others are definitely not intelligent. Of intermediate men, we should say, ‘intelligent’? ‘Yes, I think so’ or ‘No, I shouldn’t be inclined to call him intelligent.'”

Which of the following reflects the intention of the writer well?

A. To call men intelligent who are not strikingly so must be to use the concept with undue imprecision
B. Every empirical concept has a degree of vagueness
C. Calling someone intelligent or not depends upon one’s whim
D. There is no need to be as indecisive as the writer of the above

In fact, the text of this question, now that this question been grammatically corrected, is technically an alternative form of the classic “glass half-full” vs “glass half-empty” argument. Let’s examine.

Of intermediate men (meaning, men who fall halfway between intelligent and not intelligent), do we call them intelligent or not? Again, this situation illustrates another version of the “glass is half-full” versus “glass is half-empty” argument. Thus, such situations can be both rationalized and stated either way.. and correctly I might add. It’s particularly true when extenuating circumstances are present (i.e., how thirsty you are, for example).

Recognizing that this is a case of “glass half-full vs glass half-empty” should be the critical thinking challenge. Once you recognize this fact, the answer should become obvious. Yet, it doesn’t. There’s no answer here that immediately rewards the critical thinker for recognizing this fact. Instead, we are still left with 4 bland answers… answers that don’t adequately or obviously sum up the question author’s reason for writing this question.

However, according to this test author, the answer is A… “To call men intelligent who are not strikingly so must be to use the concept with undue imprecision”. There is nothing in the snippet that describes a man as “strikingly so”. This “strikingly so” concept was added in the answer and was not part of the question. In fact, the correct answer should be C… “Calling someone intelligent or not depends upon one’s whim.” Why?

Why Indeed

The answer A works only from a utility perspective, but the answer breaks down under scrutiny. The “strikingly so” text, which was only present in the answer and not in the question, was added as a qualifier for the intermediate man. This qualifier didn’t exist in the original text and was incorrectly introduced as a new concept in the answer. This violates answer protocol.

A man who is of intermediate intelligence can’t really be called unintelligent unless someone who is much more intelligent stands next to him. Intelligence is a matter of degree. This means that so long as the intermediate man is the most intelligent man in the room, then the glass is half full… or more specifically, the man is intelligent. However, if the intermediate man isn’t the most intelligent man in the room, then the glass is half-empty… or more specifically, the man is considered unintelligent. It’s all a matter of context.

The label is then applied based on the context (or whim) of the situation… which means answer C, “Calling someone intelligent or not depends upon one’s whim”. Even though neither C nor A correctly or adequately describe this situation, C is the most correct of all of the included weak answers, because C doesn’t introduce new information.

Let’s also keep in mind that the definition of “undue” means “excessive”. Calling an intermediate man intelligent isn’t, in any way, excessive. Anyone who is not unintelligent must be, by their very nature, some amount of intelligent. We all understand that intelligence is a matter of degree. It is not an absolute. Calling someone intelligent doesn’t immediately conjure up images of Einstein and Mensa when using that word to describe someone. Instead, calling someone intelligent means to recognize that they are not stupid. For this reason, this question is better served (as a critical thinking exercise) by recognizing that it is, in fact, a form of “glass half-full” vs “glass half-empty” and then treating the test taker accordingly with an appropriate answer. That is the reason for this answer’s existence… an exercise that the test writer him/herself wasn’t intelligent enough to realize.

Critical Thinking

The above proves that this form of test taking isn’t sufficient to demonstrate if a student really understands critical thinking. This form of test only tests if the student can take tests, not that they understand the concept of critical reasoning.

Critical thinking and reasoning is designed to compare ideas, learn the most you can about it, apply logic and determine if what someone is saying is true, partly true, partly false or entirely false. Again, there are degrees to falsities and truth. Understanding and being able to critically find these half-truths or half-falsities (seem familiar?) is the art of critical thinking. It is a concept that the question author above failed to understand. It is a concept, however, that is the reason critical thinking skills are very important.

To ferret out truth from fiction using logic and reasoning is, by its very nature, a skill that everyone needs to master. Sure, you may know when your kids are lying, but can you tell when your co-worker is lying? Your boss? Your doctor?

You can’t just blindly go around thinking that all of these people are telling you the absolute truth any more than thinking they are outright lying. You need to be able to determine degrees to their truth and their deceptions. This is where critical thinking comes into play. Critical thinking isn’t just about reading text, either. It’s also about reading body language, reading into a person’s words and watching how people interact with one another. To become a critical thinker, you must also be able to read human body cues and nuances. Critical thinking skills are rarely ever just about one thing. It’s a combination of cues, text, conversation and rhetoric that combines to create a whole. Once the whole is created, it can be dissected and analyzed by your brain. The point is, to work through not only the logic or irrationality of the situation, but also to combine all aspects to see the bigger picture. Only then can you really think critically about what you know.

Case in point, the above question. If I had attempted to guess what the question author wanted, I would have gotten the wrong answer… because my analysis was not what the question author was seeking. Instead, my thought processes led me down the wrong path because I saw something in the question that turned out to be ignored by the question author. Instead, the question author took the wrong path by introducing information in the answer which shouldn’t have been there. I would have ignored the A answer because of the introduction of information that wasn’t in the original question. In fact, the introduction of that new information was actually the author’s trick to lead you away from the correct answer… to have you select an answer that didn’t introduce new information.

That’s not the critical thinking that the author intended. Instead, you were forced to use critical thinking to deduce which answer is the best based entirely on what you guess the author expected. In fact, there is even less information to go on about the test author than there is in the question. However, taking a test as a whole, you might be able to, through critical thinking, ascertain patterns in the questions and answers. It is these patterns that might lead you back to the above question to later realize the obviousness of the answer.

Unfortunately, you would have to have answered many questions on the test to realize the test author’s scam behaviors. Once you can recognize the test author’s scams on the test as a whole, you can then go back and rework previous answers to fall in line with that new information gleaned from the full test. This is why there’s an art form in taking tests… and while it might utilize critical thinking, it is more dependent on second guessing the test author correctly. I digress.

Critical Information

Critically viewing the world is important. You don’t have to tell everyone your conclusions. You simply need to be able to reach reasoned conclusions based on all information you can obtain. Conclusions aren’t always correct, but critical thinking isn’t an exact science. Because data is always changing and being updated and more information can be found, conclusions may change based on new data. This is the reason to always remain open to new data with a willingness to update conclusions based on that new data.

Jumping to conclusions is easy. It’s just that people tend to jump to conclusions way before having enough critical information. In fact, many people jump to conclusions with only the barest of information. Snap conclusion jumping is the whole reason why TV sitcom programs like Three’s Company (and many other situation comedies) can even exist. With access to the Internet, everyone now has a treasure trove of information right at their fingertips. Don’t just search one thing and call it a day. Spend some quality time searching and digging and reviewing. Look at all sites… even if the site is primarily made up of kook conspiracy theorists. There are always grains of truth tucked everywhere. It’s the commonalities between the various sites that are likely to lead you to those grains of truth.

If you can call and ask questions of people, you can even gain more insight. Nothing is off limits when seeking information. The worst that someone can say to you is, “No” and then you’re no worse off than you were before. As long as you understand this aspect, you can dig for information and sometimes get the information you need. Most times you don’t even need to call and talk to someone. An email will typically suffice. Some people can even be more forthcoming in email because it doesn’t require speaking aloud, which can be overheard by bosses and other staff. Typing, on the other hand, isn’t a problem… which documents yet another critical thinking exercise.

Getting the information to aid in finding an answer is half the fun. The other half is analyzing the data in your brain for even more ideas. Not everyone has the aptitude or desire for this. I get that. But, critical thinking is still very much a useful life skill.

Testing vs Real Life

Understand that the test question above is the kind of question you might expect to see on an aptitude test, like the GMAT. To pass that test, you will need to study similar kinds of questions like the above. You’ll then need to understand how to read and interpret these questions for the appropriate answer. However, know that that kind of “critical thinking” isn’t the same as you would use in everyday life… and herein lies the rub.

Teaching critical thinking skills in a class room will gear the student towards passing an aptitude test. Unfortunately, such tests don’t adequately prepare the student for using genuine real world critical thinking skills to solve actual problems, get to the bottom of a lie or in any other way support any other real life dilemma. We must rely on a completely different set of thinking skills than those taught in a class room. For this reason, relying on academia alone to impart the necessary information tends to come up short in real world applications. It is for this reason that I write this article.

Academia

Don’t get me wrong. Academia is great for learning new information. The teachers are excellent at getting students up to speed on various topics that they may know nothing about. Unfortunately, as great as they are at doing this, you also must recognize the limitations of academia. The biggest limitation is that university and college classes aren’t great at teaching information that’s real world applicable… or more specifically, how you can apply that knowledge to real world, real life situations. Instead, the student is left to his / her own devices for how to tie course materials to every day life.

Some course materials lend themselves to real world application much more readily than others. For example, accounting classes. It’s fairly obvious that the information learned in an accounting class can be used at an accounting firm. Classes like Sociology, Psychology, Art History, History and even Geology glasses don’t always offer up real world applicable information. They’re “great to know” classes, but can’t often be used in real life. Even mathematics classes don’t always have real world applicable uses, unless you’re a video game programmer. Even then, there’s limited use cases for that information. Knowing Calculus, for example, may not be helpful in programming a video game unless you’re designing a new and better physics engine.

In most cases, however, a game developer will grab an existing game engine off of the shelf which doesn’t require a need to know that level of calculus…. because you’re using an existing pre-programmed engine, not designing a brand new one. You will need to know how to use the engine to its fullest, but that won’t require that level of mathematical understanding.

Academia does have its uses. Specifically, it helps you to get a degree. Having a degree is exceedingly helpful in obtaining a job in certain fields. Unfortunately, much of the required academic information learned at a university is lost in time… which means that the money wasn’t well spent. Certainly, you got the degree out of the deal, which is the primary reason to spend the money. However, not retaining the learned information is a loss to not only in what was learned, but to a lesser degree in the money spent in that attempt to learn. That doesn’t mean all will be lost after earning a degree.

Academia isn’t totally a waste for learned information, however. Some of the information learned can be useful in real everyday life… if you can manage to retain it. If you use some of that information on a regular basis as part of a job, then you will at least retain that information. However, keep in mind that learning information during the pursuit of your degree can become outdated years later. Even such topics as history, physics and mathematics can change as new assumptions are made, as new information is uncovered and as new technological achievements arrive. In other words, some information learned in 1995 might be outdated by 2005, just 10 years later. Indeed, computer systems will be far outdated. Learning to use, for example, the WordStar word processor was entirely outdated by the release of Windows 98 and packages like Microsoft Word. As another example, learning to use Windows 95 had become entirely outdated by 2020 with Windows 10 being the most current edition.

Even the introduction of the iPhone and the iPad have changed academia from 1995. For this reason, many professions require refresher courses every year to keep each professional informed of the latest changes in the industry. Unfortunately, too many industries don’t require such refresher courses.

Learning Everyday

The point to all of this is that critical thinking is left to the individual to both address on their own, but continue to learn, grow and expand their own knowledge and contemplation skills. Critical thinking isn’t something that you put down or use occasionally. You must use this skill every time you interact with anyone. That includes watching the news, reading a book, talking to your friends and, indeed, even interacting with your boss.

What you’ll soon learn is that everyone has an agenda. It may be as small and innocuous as attempting to sway your point of view, but it might be as big as attempting to manipulate you into doing something for them. Critical thinking is an important life skill. This can’t be emphasized enough.

You must be both willing and able to see through to a person’s real agenda. Not everyone wants something from you… at least, not something that’s tangible. Television news programs want your attention and they want to sway you to a specific point of view… a point of view that is dictated by only the information presented.

A real world example

COVID-19 comes to mind. Vaccines do have benefit when designed correctly. However, the agenda now is to push the vaccines at all costs. News programs have been pressing this point almost relentlessly… to the point of ignoring the pandemic itself. We now get 5 minute snippets of the death numbers and we get 30 or 60 minute long segments with “medical professionals” espousing how well the vaccines work… yet, how scarce they are.

We know that. We knew that when the vaccine rollout began. It’s as if the news shows each want to insult our intelligence by assuming we didn’t know that the vaccines would be scarce for months on end. Yet, instead of covering the pandemic and showing us the carnage, the news producers instead choose to show us a whole lot of nothin’ about how poorly and slowly the vaccine rollout is progressing. In fact, news programs have chosen to politicize this whole issue by blaming it on the politicians. I won’t go down into the politicization quagmire that literally has no end. Instead, let’s move on.

These news shows have chosen a one-sided approach to pandemic reporting. Instead of reporting on the actual pandemic, they are reporting on the vaccine rollout and pretending that the vaccine rollout is considered reporting news on the pandemic. Hint: it isn’t. The vaccine is but one small subset of the entire pandemic. The pandemic is about how the virus is spreading, not how well the vaccine rollout is going.

Let’s understand more. The vaccine brings hope. The pandemic brings despair. As a producer, which would you rather report on? Here’s where biased reporting comes into play. The pandemic is not just about the vaccine, it’s about how, when and why people are contracting the virus. It’s about contact tracing. It’s about timely testing. It’s about hospitals under siege. It’s about the resulting deaths. It’s about running out of medical equipment. It’s about all of these things and more…. and yes, it is also about the vaccine rollout.

When a news program chooses to ignore all else to bring the vaccine rollout front and center, that’s disingenuous reporting and it’s the very definition of biased reporting. One might even consider this kind of repetitive reporting as a kind of reporting designed to convince the viewer the vaccine is a “good thing”. This aspect requires critical thinking skills to both realize and understand. If you don’t use critical thinking skills here, you can’t know to visit other news sites to get information about the pandemic itself sans the vaccine rhetoric. Critical thinking allows you to bring all aspects into perspective.

In the last example, trying to convince someone of something by repeating it often is a recent, but definitely not new, trend. As a critical thinker, you must recognize this false strategy to understand just how misleading this trend is. Donald Trump utilized this “repeat often” strategy in an attempt to convince people that the election was rigged. Here we have news programs using this same exact strategy to sway people to the news producer’s agenda about, “pandemic bad, vaccine good”.

Let me just stop here to point out a prior Randocity article about the vaccine. Again, this is another critical thinking article. I’m not attempting to convince you of my point. Instead, I’m offering up various sides and I leave it for you to decide your own point of view. I also don’t use repetitive reporting techniques to barrage you with the same point over and over and over as a technique of persuasion. I could most certainly use this technique, but then this blog would be no better than Donald Trump or various major news networks.

With this article, I want you to rise above these petty persuasion techniques and see these things for what they are… by using critical thinking and reasoning. However, as the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” I can lead you, but you must choose to understand. I’m not here to convince you. You must make the leap to understand for yourself.

One Last Exercise — COVID-19

Let’s critically discuss the vaccine rollout. The vaccine rollout team has chosen a very specific rollout methodology. A methodology that I have begun to question. There’s no argument that choosing to inoculate those most at risk first seems like the best strategy, but is it? Clearly, those at high risk stand to lose their lives if they become infected. However, how do those at risk become infected? The answer is most likely, by those who are much younger and healthier who bring it to them.

Reasoning this out, it seems that rolling the vaccines out to those at highest risk of carrying the virus around would make the most logical sense, regardless of age. Yes, it’s been stated the vaccines won’t necessarily prevent carrying the virus asymptomatically. Let’s examine who I propose here: children in school. Because children are dependent on adults for their well being and because children must return to school and daycare centers which congregate children into close social groups and because children are not yet capable of understanding the ramifications and risks of carrying around COVID-19, children carriers are the most likely reason those at risk could become infected.

Children congregate socially to play and learn. Because of that, they then pass COVID-19 around and bring it home to their parents. If it’s a multi-generational household with grandparents at home, then those most at risk can easily become infected. The parents can then become unknowingly infected and, for a short asymptomatic time period, carry and spread COVID-19 to work, retail businesses when shopping and others they encounter… even to social events like the year end holiday season.

Many people have presumed this next false logic about children and COVID-19: “Because children are less prone to the affects of COVID-19, this means they are less likely to spread it.” This is patently false. There is no causation between these two separate concepts. Children and adults are both human. Human to human transmission is just as likely from a child as from an adult. In fact, because children are less likely to wash hands often and less likely to cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough, transmission of COVID-19 from a child is extremely high. While the child may never get severe symptoms, that may not be true of those to whom the child has transmitted the virus. However, a child doesn’t have the life experience to understand why handwashing is important… why covering their nose and mouth to sneeze or cough is important… why it’s important to take regular baths and to wash clothing. That leaves adults at greater risk from their own child, particularly if they’ve been at school around other children.

I’ve even seen doctors on news programs implying that children can’t as easily transmit the virus to adults as justification of getting the children back into school. I get this want. I truly do. Parents can’t have their children at home 100% of the time. They need their child back in school. After all, school is really treated primarily as a form of free daycare… with the added benefit that the child might learn something. However, the misguided logic of children being unable to spread COVID-19 is patently false and will bite us all in the ass.

Children can pass COVID-19 to an adult just as easily as an adult can pass COVID-19 to a child. There is no transmissibility decrease from child to adult or adult to child for any virus, including colds, flu and, yes, COVID-19. You are just as likely to catch a virus from a child as from an adult or from anyone of any age. Anyone claiming otherwise is flat out lying to you. Human transmissibility of a virus doesn’t change simply because of the age of the human. Believing that lie could get you and your family dead.

For this reason, using this lie to justify school reopening is ripe for a resurgence of the virus… not to mention, the unnecessary loss of teaching staff life that, at this time, can’t be easily replaced. If school districts want to believe this patently false lie and reopen the schools simply to get the kids back at their desks, then don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Vaccination

If schools wish to reopen, children and teachers must be vaccinated for COVID-19. Why? Not because the vaccine won’t stop children from being carriers, but because it will reduce the amount of time they can carry COVID-19 when they get it. In fact, a child taking the vaccine may actually reduce and limit the child’s ability to transmit the virus to others. If their immune system fights off the virus quickly (in a day or two), a child’s ability to transmit is limited to a day or two at most. Because the vaccine kickstarts the immune system into action fairly quickly, a child should be able recover far, far faster from even an asymptomatic infection than an adult. Vaccination can then drastically reduce transmission from child to child in a school setting. It also drastically reduces the chances a child may transmit it to a teacher (particularly if the teachers are also inoculated) or to their parents.

For this reason, the currently flawed strategy of inoculating the eldest groups first and working downward means leaving school age children as the very last group to receive the vaccine. Again, flawed logic. Yet, parents want schools reopened now. If schools want to reopen, then everyone working in schools, including the children, must be vaccinated. There is no other choice. This means modifying the present rollout strategy to send vaccines into schools by having schools be the next group in line to receive the vaccine. Attempting to open schools without a vaccine strategy will lead to the unnecessary deaths of teachers and staff operating the schools… at which point the schools will be forced to close, not because of the virus threat, but because there’s simply no longer enough staff to operate the school system. Then, the choice to reopen schools will have been firmly shut down until such time as staff can be replaced.

Of course, no new teachers will want to hire onto school districts whose leadership so callously let their own teachers and staff die by becoming infected with COVID-19 via the children, particularly when this situation could have been entirely avoided by choosing a safer distance learning approach. In other words, the schools and school districts will have a logistical public relations nightmare on their hands should such a situation unfold. Not to mention, many, many lawsuits from teacher and school children families alike. Opening schools to 100% capacity without any mitigation strategies, such as the vaccine, is ripe for many, many more COVID-19 deaths, not just in schools. Think about the holiday season surge, but then realize it won’t end until schools end up forced closed because of loss of a critical amount of staff. It’s ultimately a no-win scenario. Believing the lie that schools are “safe environments” without offering a vaccine strategy is likely to end up with the same outcome as the year end holiday season COVID-19 death surge. Here you should use critical thinking to think through this assertion.

Reducing the Spread?

The bigger question… Is anything that we’re doing, including the vaccine rollout, actually making a dent in COVID-19’s spread? As of now, probably not. The vaccine rollout might eventually begin to take an effect, but that probably won’t happen for at least a year or longer. Even if the vaccine reduces the symptoms of COVID-19 to a manageable and survivable level, that still means that COVID-19 still has the potential to be fatal in some risk groups where the vaccine doesn’t work properly or can’t be administered. The vaccine may reduce the mortality rate in an eventual way, but we don’t yet as know how far the mortality rate may be reduced.

On the other side, we are also running against the variant clock. I really dislike the term variant and, instead, prefer the term strain. I don’t know why the news programs are using the term variant instead of strain, but here we are. The primary defined difference between a variant and a strain is its functional difference. For example, scientists believe that if a mutated virus is capable of getting past a vaccine, then it is considered a new strain. If a virus has mutated, but functionally hasn’t changed and vaccines are still equally effective, then it is a new variant. However, I’d argue that if the virus hasn’t functionally changed, it isn’t even a variant … regardless of whether its genome has mutated? In other words, variants aren’t important until they are able to get around a vaccine, in which case it’s no longer a variant, but a new strain.

The clock, however, is still ticking. That means that eventually a new strain (not variant) of COVID-19 will emerge that (almost) completely evades the current vaccines. That means vaccine manufacturers will need to rework the vaccine to include the new strain(s) or provide a booster shot that boosts the antibodies to now include the new strain(s). Though, I’d logically argue that a booster shot that intends to combat a new strain is not a booster and is instead a new vaccine unto itself. Additionally, when a new strain emerges, it likely won’t be a single strain. It will be multiple strains. Once this happens, tracking them all down to modify the vaccines can be a challenge. In other words, the vaccine efficacy is entirely dependent on how long the current strains remain unchallenged. As soon as new strains emerge, this whole situation starts all over again.

That’s an example critical thinking, not the test that began this article. The test example above doesn’t actually detect your ability to reason. It tests your ability to take tests. It’s one of the fundamental problems with academia. Until universities wake up to this fundamental disparity, they remain status quo by offering an alternative universe from reality. Universities need to wake up to the realities of the world and learn to teach real world experience. Right now, the best universities offer is book knowledge which, unfortunately, may only offer less than 20% usability in the real world. For this reason, it’s why corporations shy away from hiring recent graduates for critical business roles… which makes recent graduate employment all the more difficult. Graduates may wonder why. Well, now you have your answer. Only real world business experience offers businesses the safety net they need to know the individual understands how to operate in a corporate culture and do the assigned job to the satisfaction of the corporation leadership team.

A Final Word to College Graduates

A recent college graduate has little to no corporate experience and, thus, has no way to know how to time manage themselves or their job efforts. Time management is never taught in college. The recent grad will eventually learn this, but many businesses want new hires to hit the ground running on day one. Managers don’t want to spend hours and hours training a recent college graduate only to find them walk away from the job a year later for significantly higher pay. For training reasons, hiring managers typically hire recent graduates for significantly less pay than someone seasoned. Training is costly both in time and money, which is a significant part of the reason for the lower pay. To invest that time and money into a recent college graduate only to have them walk puts managers on edge… and makes them gun-shy to try it again. That doesn’t mean a raise won’t be forthcoming to get you up to market levels. Don’t assume you’re stuck at the pay rate where you are. However, many graduates are too impatient to wait.

I realize college graduates want higher pay on their first job, but that isn’t usual. Worse, using a new employer simply to put the company name on your resume for a year is callous and manipulative. It may also hurt your future job prospects. If as a new graduate, you commit to a job, stick with it for at least a couple years. Don’t use the company as a stepping stone for resume experience and discard them like an empty bottle. Sticking with the job increases your marketability for new jobs and increases your chances for much better pay opportunities. Walking away too soon will be frowned upon by hiring managers. Hiring managers will notice your itinerant nature is a problem… particularly if you’ve left the job in a year or less after graduation. They may even insinuate there’s a problem afoot with hiring you. Be careful with your first job as it sets the tone for all future jobs.

Again, this is critical thinking and reasoning skills at work. You must think through all aspects of the hiring processes to understand how and why what you do and how you treat your employer can help or hurt your future career. Learn to use all of your critical thinking skills to think through every situation. Critical thinking is a skill that’s difficult to master, but it is a life skill that will greatly aid you in many different ways throughout your life.

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How important is nutrition education in Schools?

Posted in food, Health, nutrition, school by commorancy on January 3, 2019

Stalks2Happy New Year, Randocity Readers! Welcome to the first post of 2019. Here’s a topic that’s been boiling for quite some time, but never quite mashed it into a written article. With the new year comes resolutions. Considering this is typically a new year resolution, it’s the perfect time to roll this article out. This topic is something I think that public schools and even colleges need to rethink. Let’s explore.

Growing Up, Food Choices and School

One of the things that more or less caused me lots of angst throughout grade school (and even into college), as I now reflect on it, was the lack of mandated nutrition education. I grew up in Houston and went to public school there and later went to college up state. At the time I was in grade school, I obviously didn’t know any better about nutrition and wouldn’t have challenged the ‘establishment’ even if I did. No, I was clearly in the dark on this topic.

One thing that I can definitively say about Houston ISD was its serious lack of food education. While there were classes available like Home Economics, these classes were far less about nutrition and more about how to prepare a meal and not burn it and not cut yourself. You know, the logistics of using pots and pans, cooking in the oven, using a blender or food processor, time budgeting and how to handle kitchen cutlery safely. As I said, logistics. While these are incredibly valuable kitchen safety and functionality education conversations, they have nothing whatever to do with smart food choices or in understanding healthy nutrition.

No, there was no such class available in elementary, junior high (now called “middle school”) or even high school. In fact, the cafeteria’s food choices served to the kids was actually some of the worst, least nutritional meals I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. They were edible, yes, but just barely.

Not only was the school remiss in teaching proper food education, the school entirely failed in feeding the students a proper meal that would aid in the nutrition learning process… which is really the most important part of any nutrition program. If you’re falling asleep in class because you ate the wrong foods, then perhaps it’s important to teach better food choices to avoid this outcome?

Unhealthy Choices

Before I dive deeper, let’s talk about the weird food choices from my school’s cafeteria. While I don’t recall exact meals served in my elementary school, I do recall the pints of milk that nearly every student bought and drank each day… sometimes two. Mostly I missed what was served each day due to the fact that I rarely bought a meal from the cafeteria. My parents packed me a lunch each day. However, what the cafeteria served was one from a set menu each day. One day might be pizza, another day might be hamburger and another might be Salisbury steak. If they served any fruit with the lunch, it was usually in the form of Jello. Oh, how I hated the school’s Jello. For whatever reason, it always had a very hard top “crust” that formed on the Jello that resembled more of chewing on rubber than a food product. Horrible.

As I said, I thankfully missed much of that nutritionally deficient and poor quality food fare as I rarely bought food from the cafeteria. Throughout elementary school, my parents made and packed my lunch in lunch box or bag and I would only purchase a pint of milk to have something to drink with my lunch.

When I did rarely eat a meal at the elementary school cafeteria, pretty much any meal served was either way overcooked, under cooked or simply tasted like a really bad 70s frozen TV dinner. I recall that the food mostly tasted of cardboard (little flavor from that grade C or D food). There was absolutely no care in the quality or the nutritional value of the food. It was simply supplied to “feed” the kids and, hopefully, get them through the rest of the day (at the cheapest cost possible).

It’s not that my bagged lunch was so much better, though. I mean, how many days in a row can you eat a bologna and cheese sandwich, some chips and/or maybe an apple or banana? Yep, that’s pretty much what my parents packed… that or peanut butter and jelly. It was a meal that needed to withstand no refrigeration. By the time we were ready to eat lunch, it was room temperature and was, well, not that tasty.

It was definitely a meal that left me wanting. Peanut Butter and Jelly offered its own share of problems, such as solid sustenance. Peanut butter is tasty enough, but it’s no where near filling enough to substitute for actual protein. The Jelly is just glorified fruit sugar. Jelly simply gave you a sugar high that would eventually drop so low as to make you tired and sleepy. Peanut butter and jelly was, in fact, one of the worst meals I could have eaten. I’m not necessarily speaking for others, but for me that meal didn’t work out. Thankfully, I almost always got lunch meat on a sandwich. Better, but obviously not best. It was almost always a sandwich so they wouldn’t have to pack silverware or containers. Occasionally, they might use the thermos in my lunch box to pack some soup, but that also lacked in being filling as PB&J… mostly because it was usually Campbell’s soup.

I don’t fault my parents as they really didn’t know better. Their food education throughout their schooling was as poor for them as it was for me. They made these food choices for us kids even though it wasn’t always the smartest of choices. It was mostly out of cost value or convenience (read speed). I can certainly understand them not wanting wake up two or more hours early to prepare cooked meals for us, then still be required to go to work later. I get it. But it also meant nutrition that didn’t fulfill our nutritional requirements. The cafeteria meals were hot and cooked, but not always that fresh or tasty. Either meal type left me wanting.

Middle and High School

As I moved into junior high and high school, my stance on nutrition only got marginally better. What I mean by that is that in junior high, I ate most of my meals by buying a cafeteria lunch. I rarely brought in bag lunches at this point. I guess, my parents were tired of having to make a meal every day and I was certainly tired of eating nearly the same sandwich every single day. So, I began buying meals at the cafeteria. Not the best choice I could have made in hindsight, but I definitely remember these meals.

These cafeteria meals consisted of a poor quality protein, including fried chicken, chicken fried steak and gravy, pizza (very, very bad pizza), spaghetti, Salisbury steak, hamburger (tasted like it was frozen) and other similarly horrible entrees. Everything served tasted as if it had been frozen solid an hour before. Our rectangular 4 or 5 compartment trays would also be fitted with a horribly overcooked and/or canned side dishes (i.e., green beans, corn, peas, etc) and a desert (Jello, ambrosia, carrot raisin salad, etc). Sometimes one of the tray slots would be filled with bread. The choices and food combinations were questionable, but always predictably the same. Because the school lunch program published its monthly meal schedule in advance, you could avoid the days when the worst foods were served… which was pretty much every day.

As I moved into High School, the whole lunch food dynamic changed for my first 1.5 years (before the school moved to a new location). Because my high school had no cafeteria at all when I started as a freshman, we had to fend for ourselves at lunch. Yeah, I know, it’s weird. Because of this dilemma at the school, a few of the faculty took it upon themselves to run to Del Taco or some other fast food place and buy a bunch of burritos or hamburgers, bring them back and sell them to us. I’d occasionally used this option when I didn’t have much time between classes. Again, nutrition was a second thought. It was less about feeding the kids a proper meal and more about getting the kids fed. It’s that cattle mentality.

Thankfully, our school campus overlapped with part of Houston Community College’s campus. Because HCC had a culinary program (such that it was), the students were tasked with operating an eatery and, thus, there was a school operated cafeteria on the top floor of their classroom building. Occasionally, I would end up there to eat lunch and, I will say, for the first time I had a reasonable quality and tasty lunch. It was probably even somewhat nutritious as they had a salad bar that I occasionally used. The bar was expensive because it was “by the pound”, but the ingredients were always freshly made and tasty. For me, it was a treat to eat this kind of food for lunch rather than burritos.

The last half of my high school years, the school had moved out of that facility and into a “new” building. I put that in quotes because while it was “new” it was horribly lacking in design and it was incredibly small for a high school building. I’m not sure what HISD was thinking when they designed it. I digress.

Anyway, we were again dependent on HISD to provide us with meals. This basically meant, we had to fend for ourselves because, once again, the food was total garbage. Instead of the cafeteria where you ask them to plate foods from a buffet bar, this was a walk up window and there was a fixed menu. One day it might be hamburgers, another day it might be pizza and another day who knows what crappy concoction they would sell us. The food was horrible, salty, sugary and greasy all at the same time. Yet, that’s what they served us at a similar (or sometimes higher) price to McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Del Taco or Wendy’s. In fact, because we had been so spoiled by being allowed to leave the campus for lunch during those 1.5 years at the older campus, we still took the opportunity to leave the campus to go get lunch. However, many of us ended up over at 7-Eleven because it was on the next block over and we could walk there and back in less than 10 minutes on our strict 30 allotted minutes. Fast food places required hopping into a car and driving for at least 5-10 minutes in addition to waiting on the order during a busy noon lunch crowd. You ended up eating your meal in the car on the way back because you had maybe 5 minutes to eat it if you waited until you got back.

None of these were terribly smart food choices, but this is what choices we had as students. Choices that could have been made better if we had had some nutrition classes to teach us better eating habits and had had better food choices served to us in the cafeteria. Or better, offer the students (at least in junior high on up) a real kitchen facility with microwaves to allow us to make our own lunches and offer up a fridge system to store our lunches until lunch time so the lunches aren’t sitting out for 4 hours without refrigeration.

Junk Food, Candy and Time Management

Candy bars, soda and generally sugary junk foods were common staples in my lunchroom beginning in junior high (7th grade). This was in addition to vending machines… which you couldn’t use during lunch because we were captive in the lunch room (doors were basically locked) and the vending machines were in the hall a fair distance away. If you managed to walk buy one during class exchange, you could buy and stock up before lunch, leaving it in your locker. If you did leave the lunchroom to go to the vending machine and were caught, you got detention.

In junior high, there was the cafeteria line which served “hot meals” on trays with very long lines, but there was also a concession booth in the back of the lunchroom that served foods like hot dogs, candy bars, chips, soda, granola bars, gum, candy with a much, much shorter line. It was basically the prepared stuff you’d find at a 7-Eleven or at a movie theater (minus popcorn).

Why is this important? During junior high school, the lunch line was so long, if you weren’t at the lunch room early, you’d be waiting to get your meal for upwards to 25 minutes in a very long line. The cafeteria workers were incredibly slow and it took even longer to pay for your meal due to the “meal program” slowness. Because the lunch lasted 30 minutes on the dot, that meant 5 minutes or less to woof down your meal.

This is an important point. Having enough time to eat a meal is just as important as the food that’s being served. The school didn’t care that it took students upwards to 25 minutes simply to buy their meal. Woofing down a meal in 5 minutes doesn’t offer enough time to properly chew your food. It just doesn’t work. Again, naïve school administration. It wasn’t my fault that my class was the farthest away from the lunchroom and let out last, yet I was constantly penalized with excessively short amounts of time to eat my meal if I chose to buy a meal from the line.

This meant three choices: bring your lunch, 5 minutes to eat or junk food available almost immediately. There were many times were I opted for the junk food so I could at least have 15-20 minutes to sit down and relax before the next class. It wasn’t the greatest choice, but it was “the lesser of those evils.” Junior high school ultimately taught me how to eat fast AND eat junk, but never eat nutritiously.

When I got to high school, the high school’s lunch window (toward the latter half of my time there) sold both a combination of meals and junk food. You made the choice when you got to the window. Because this window wasn’t part of the “official” HISD lunch program, you’d only find out what was being served the day of. This meant asking when you got to the window and then making a choice to buy or not. If you chose not, then you’d have to leave the campus and find a meal elsewhere. Believe me, the “meals” being served from that cafeteria window were some of the most questionable I’d ever had in school. Not only was the food expensive, it was simply horrible quality food. I walked away empty handed and ended up at 7-Eleven far too much of the time. Ultimately, it was trading one bad choice for another. But, at least it was something I could eat.

However, because of lunch period time constraints, sometimes there was no choice. As an example, one of the “meals” my high school lunch window regularly served (more than twice a week) was a Frito Pie. You know, pouring chili over the top of Fritos and topping it with cheese and onions. Yeah, such great nutrition there, if you consider salt, carbs and grease as nutritious. If you wanted fruit or salad, I can’t recall them ever selling that. Because these healthier choices of foods are more perishable than canned, frozen and bagged items, they didn’t want to keep it in the kitchen. Oh, how I longed for the days of the HCC cafeteria. In fact one or two times I decided to drive over there and eat instead. It wasn’t that far from the new school, but it was a hassle to leave and make it back on time. Instead, I’d usually make my way to 7-Eleven to their cold case and buy something prepackaged or to get a piece of fruit. Even then, towards my final year, the school office was trying to enforce not leaving the campus at lunch time. There’s no way that was not going to happen. Many of us still left to picked up lunch from 7-Eleven or McDonald’s or Wendy’s… just try and stop me.

In my senior year, one of the stickler academic instructors tried to hassle me one day for going to 7-Eleven. I simply told them I was on an errand for another instructor, which was a common request. He had to shut up and go away. Thankfully, it was my senior year and I could finally get away from that crap food.

Nutrition Education

The problem with public schools is that while they do a decent job at teaching the academic basics of history, math, biology and general science, schools typically neglect food science and fail to embrace the holistic idea of how food acts on the body. Students might learn about this topic if they happen to have parents who work in that profession, but many won’t learn it from school… which means most students didn’t learn it during my time in school. Today, schools may have added some nutrition classes, but I kinda doubt they’re where they need to be… teaching only the barebones basics and still serving questionable quality meals.

The closest that schools came to nutrition education at the time I was there was Home Economics (or whatever they might be calling it today). Home Economics is less about food and nutrition and more about the logistics of navigating a kitchen safely, knife handling, food prep, using kitchen appliances and timing of cooking so that all of the food lands on a plate at or close to the same time. It might have even included a discussion on budget shopping. That’s not nutrition, that’s logistics.

Basically, I learned nothing about food or nutrition until into my late-30s. I learned about it on my own slowly, which allowed me to better understand some of the problems I was experiencing to better my own quality of life through better food choices. To some degree, I still struggle with this only because of the lack of formal education around food and nutrition, thanks mostly to the lack of public education in teaching this important knowledge area.

Unfortunately, I moved from one type of “school” to effectively another when I took my first job at a theme park. Because the food being served there was only marginally better than my school’s food, I still didn’t learn about food and nutrition while working there. The food choices there were also questionable… and mostly consisted of a hamburger and fries. The park simply didn’t treat nutrition as anything important. It was more important to serve foods that people liked instead of supporting healthy nutritious choices. As employees, we had to suffer through with that food rationale geared towards park guests.

As employees, we also had no kitchen or fridge facilities to store our foods. If you wanted to bring something from home, you had to bring a small cooler yourself and then find a place to store it. Coolers only marginally worked because of the high outside temperatures during summer. For folks who worked in food service, they might be able to store a brought lunch in their restaurant’s fridge if the manager allowed it. That was only a perk for those specific workers. The general staff was offered no such kitchen facility when there was plenty of park space to build and offer such a lunchroom location.

Food is Energy

It’s clear, food is the energy needed to keep the body working. As they say, “You are what you eat.” That is a fairly accurate statement. Food is about balanced nutrition including balancing carbohydrates, proteins and fats in combination with vitamins and minerals. It’s also about understanding which foods contain which vitamins and minerals and understanding which specific foods fall under carbohydrates, fats and proteins by eyeing the food. For example, a hamburger patty is both fat and protein with very little carbs. A hamburger bun is almost all carbs with some fats. When you add vegetables, such as tomatoes and onions, this is primarily where vitamins and minerals come in.

Candy bars are primarily sugar and fats with a bunch of fillers, flavors and cocoa.

It’s really easy to write this now only because I’ve come to understand what is what. But, when you’re 5-18 years old, you don’t learn this. Like a foreign language, students learn best during these early years. Why this information is not imparted to children at that age just doesn’t make sense.

If I had been taught nutrition during my early school years, I could have moved into my 20s much more informed, with a healthier weight and ultimately made better food and nutrition choices during college years. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Nutrition Classes

Nutrition is not a hard topic to grasp the basics. For example, understanding the Nutrition Facts label, understanding how to read an ingredient label and understanding what foods fall into which category (fats, carbs, protein) is actually mostly easy today, thanks to the standardized nutrition labeling requirements.

I guess schools thought that the Nutrition Facts label was so simple to understand that there’s no need to teach anything. Well, that’s not true. There are plenty of gotchas when reading a Nutrition Facts label. Sometimes it’s not about what’s on the label, it’s what’s missing from the label, such as food combinations.

Also, it’s quite important to offer sufficient time to consume the food in combination with supplying fresh, high quality meals is what would help the students to perform their best. For a timing example, the short 30 minutes offered to eat lunch in the cafeteria and the 10-15 minutes to woof down breakfast during the first class of the day. Teaching kids to eat fast is not a smart choice. Eating smart and chewing it properly is the smarter choice. As an example, sweet laden breakfasts causes the body to fight against sleepytime as insulin crashes because of the 150g of carbs during breakfast or lunch. This is why understanding smart nutrition is so important… such as how the foods act on the body.

For those students who have diabetes or require special dietary needs, these students become well versed in what to eat and what not to eat because of severe health consequences. Though, temptation is always there, there are severe consequences if they cheat. Kids with diabetes or food allergies learn these consequences early. Why does it take this level of consequence for kids to learn? Why can’t this type of information make its way to the general population of students? Setting up a nutrition class is not that hard to design, but it does require funding by the school. I guess schools just don’t feel that this level of nutrition education is important. It’s a short-sighted point by the schools.

Equipping our Kids for Success

Giving our kids every opportunity to succeed in life should be the goal of every school. Yet, withholding such vital information as how to eat properly in a world full of bad food choices simply doesn’t make any sense.

We teach students about such things as history to help prevent history repeating itself, yet we give students no tools to help manage food, nutrition and their body. Food can make or break the body. As a child, the body is very resilient to the fillers and chemicals placed into junk food. As we age, the body becomes less tolerant to these. This means that as our kids move into becoming young adults, then adults, many will forever struggle with weight issues and food related health problems… because they were given no tools in school.

By failing to equip our students to identify and avoid problematic foods, we are leading some of our kids down a path that will fail them. Knowing history, math, biology and science is great, but it doesn’t fully equip our kids to survive in the world, particularly when it comes to food choices.

Kids need to learn to make smart food choices in elementary school. They need to understand the difference between eating green beans or a salad over mac and cheese and chicken nuggets. They may not like green beans or salad, but they need to understand the positive benefits they could experience by eating them. Kids that age may not want to explore foods like these that early, but with a proper class, we could entice kids to want to explore these foods and become excited over them. This is the benefit of offering food choices and nutrition classes.

Bullying, Obesity and Kids

Much of the reason kids bully one another due to body weight issues. It might be that the kid is too thin and lanky, but it’s just as likely they’ll be overweight or even obese. Thin or fat are two sides of the same coin, usually resulting from improper relationships with food and simply not understanding nutrition. Being overly thin could be a metabolism thing, but it might also be the food choices. Being obese is also a metabolism problem in relation to food choices.

Weight loss or gain starts in the kitchen. The body needs proper nutrition based on the body type. If you’re predisposed to gaining weight, then that requires a different course of action with food than if you’re thin trying to gain weight. It’s all about tailored nutrition.

As I said above, the young body bounces back easily even when the wrong foods are being eaten. This is why kids can be both overweight and still be considered ‘healthy’. At that point, it would be considered a degree of health. Healthy isn’t simply a specific number. There’s variation between levels of health. You can fall under healthy with medical tests, but still feel awful, have aches and pains, sleep poorly and generally feel crappy overall. That’s a degree of unhealthy. Even kids can suffer from this problem.

Growing up, I couldn’t sleep more than 5-6 hours at a time. That wasn’t a sleeping behavior problem alone. That was a food and nutrition problem. When I eat properly at the proper times during the day, I can sleep for up to 8 hours, but generally hit the 7 hour mark before waking. I still struggle with proper nutrition. Today, that’s less about naïvety than time constraints.

It’s also important to understand moderation and variety in food consumption. Eating the same food day in and out may be tasty, particularly if the food is Pizza or Mac and Cheese, but that doesn’t make it a healthy food habit. It’s easy to become deficient in nutrition if you’re not getting balanced foods… like eating a piece of fruit or vegetables at some of the meals. It’s also about cooking and raw foods. Vegetables can be eaten raw or cooked.

The point is, teaching a proper food lifestyle from an early age can mean better body image, feeling better, more energy and a more positive outlook when at school. By eating only junk food and sticking to a diet that consists of the same foods over and over, the body may not be getting what it needs to concentrate in class or getting proper sleep. This can mean irritability, irrational behavior and perhaps leading to bad grades or being a troublemaker. Eating properly cannot in any way fix mental health issues, but it can improve health and well being, including mental well being. This is why it’s important to give students every possible tool to help them not only succeed in school, but have life tools to help them succeed into adulthood.

Raw vs Cooked

School cafeterias always cook the food until it’s overcooked. However, eating raw fruit or vegetables is a very good way to add more vitamins and minerals to your diet. Because we’ve recently had a spate of problems with raw vegetables (i.e., Salmonella or E.Coli), many people feel that they should be cooking their vegetables. Cooking vegetables is great, but it also strips some of the important nutrients from the food. This is why it’s important to include both raw and cooked vegetables in your diet. If you’re concerned over Salmonella or E.Coli, then lightly steam the vegetables. Let them remain mostly raw, but give them enough hot steam time to kill off any outside bacteria. Try to keep that vegetable as raw as possible. If a green vegetable has turned a dull yellow-green, then it’s overcooked. Green vegetables should remain a vibrant green color even when steamed.

To eat fruits and vegetables raw, wash them with at least water. Better, wash them in a diluted vinegar solution (3 parts water to 1 part vinegar). The vinegar won’t damage the produce and also won’t in any way preserve it, but it will kill off almost all of the bacteria and pesticides (and any remaining soil). You can also buy commercial produce wash solutions like FIT or Veggie Wash, but these can be more expensive than plain vinegar.

If you’re really concerned about this problem, I’d suggest visiting your local farmer’s produce market and get to know your local growers. Ask them how they manage their crops, the kinds of pesticides they use, the kinds of fertilizer they use and also ask about their general produce storage and handling practices (make sure they’re keeping the produce properly stored, such as chilled and that they are packed separately from other vegetables).

Shopping for produce also gives you the opportunity to take your children with you and let them pick out produce that is appealing to them. Shopping lets them explore the fascinating world of fruits and vegetables and lets them pick them up, touch them and see how they feel. It’s a way to get your kids interested in more than chicken nuggets, pizza and mac and cheese. Children are naturally curious explorers. Let’s let them do what they do best and explore the world of fruits and vegetables through new eyes. They may not like everything they try, but that’s okay. They’ll find at least something that they like. Kids are also more likely to like it if you let them choose rather than trying to force the foods on them. Food exploration is an important tool to entice children into trying fruits and vegetables. If you take them to a farmer’s market, many produce vendors cut up and offer fruit samples right there. This gives your child a chance to try the fruits right at the market.

Buying local produce, you can typically avoid many of the problems you find with the large commercial growers who supply your local supermarkets… and that includes supermarkets like Whole Foods and Sprouts, even as much as they tout fresh, healthy, whole foods and produce. Buying local doesn’t necessarily get you better tasting produce, but many times it does. For example, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries in the supermarket are often bland and not at all sweet. Buying from a local grower, many times you’ll find much, much sweeter berries at or less than store prices. But, it’s really less about the price and more about the quality of the nutrition. It’s also about food exploration.

College

When I moved onto college, not much changed in terms of food quality. Our college cafeteria treated food towards students like someone might treat feeding pigs on a farm…. just throw some random slop out there and they’ll eat it.

My college cafeteria food clearly created some of the worst food I’d ever experienced at a school. In hindsight, the food itself was probably not much worse than HISD’s food… it was the extremely poor food handling practices that made it much, much worse. For example, when the college cafeteria served hamburgers, they would cook the meat in advance, place them into some kind of flavored water solution and leave them overnight in the fridge. Then they’d pull the metal hot table bins from the fridge, unwrap them and place them onto a hot grill to heat them up for the day.

Not only were the hamburger patties not fresh, they tasted weird. I think I only ever ate one or two before bowing out of that mess. Now keep in mind that the college forced a meal plan on every incoming freshman and sophomore who lived in the dorms. I can understand why they forced it. The food was so grade D that there was no other way they could sell that trash to anyone actually willing to pay at the register. On these bad hamburger days, I’d make my way to Whataburger, who always cooked at least grade B burgers fresh to order… none of that weird floating in hot water grade D nonsense.

It also meant that, for the first time, I had the option to make better food choices for myself. Food choices that not only worked for my budget, but that also provided fresh hot nutritious meals; meals that didn’t leave me feeling lethargic, sleepy and generally crap. That not to say I didn’t occasionally overindulge and get that way, but I began learning much more about nutrition on my own while in college. I also began learning because due to the crap way I had been taught to eat my meals in 5 minutes in junior high (reinforced by my first job) and the kinds of food I’d been taught to eat. I had also begun experiencing digestive problems.

At the time, I’m quite sure the college offered nutrition classes because of their various athletics and Kinesiology programs, but I didn’t take any of these classes. Though, I’m certain they were offered. In hindsight, I probably should have taken at least one class just to find out what I didn’t know. Unfortunately, my college degree already kept me busy. My degree plan just didn’t have any room after I’d filled in all of very few electives with classes that helped me graduate faster. However, my public school days definitely offered no nutrition classes. There was simply nothing available. If I had wanted to take a class like this, I’d have had to do it after school on my parent’s dime. My parents wouldn’t have agreed to this. Though, even in junior high, I was aware of services like Weight Watchers… and I’d even considered joining. I simply had no spare time (or spare money as they required you to buy into their food).

In high school, there were sex ed classes, but there were no nutrition classes… definitely none at my high school. In junior high, if there was any nutrition conversation, the extent of it was in a biology class, usually offering a very academic overview… being less about proper nutrition than the sheer basics about how food works on the body. There were zero nutrition classes available during elementary school, the most formative time when children should be exposed to proper nutrition.

Sure, we understand what tastes good (ice cream, Cheetos and Coke) and what tastes bad (broccoli and liver), but that’s such a basic understanding for a child, it’s just surface understanding of food, but completely skips healthy nutrition. It’s just a “I like this, but I don’t like that” kind of preference… which has nothing at all to do with making healthy food choices or nutrition.

No, it seems many public schools completely ignore nutrition and just how much healthy eating contributes not only to weight, but also to overall health, mental health, well-being and focus. That’s not to say that we should eat nothing but Kale salads with sprouts. Moderation is the key, eating healthy means making choices that allow the body to feel its best, act its best, look its best and be its best. Splurging on ice cream or soda or pizza or fried chicken is fine, occasionally. Everyone needs moderation in their diet. These should be rare events rather than every day. Treat them as ‘treats’, not as ‘staples’.

Controversial Topics, Making Choices

Nutrition is kind of a “he said, she said” world. Because there are so many foods (real and fake) on the market, every food industry wants an edge to get their product to sell. For this reason, this is why there’s all of these conflicting food topics… such as eggs are good, then eggs are bad, then eggs are good again… and so on. This has happened with salt, eggs, shrimp, avocados, sugar, saccharin, food dyes, food additives and even Coke. This is why schools probably shy away from setting up classes.

If you set up nutrition class, you’d have to decide which side of the fence you’re on… or at least so a school might think. This means that they might need to side with the egg industry that “eggs are good”. But then, some parents might not like that their child is being taught that.

Schools prefer to avoid this kind of confrontation with parents, particularly vocal parents who might do damage to the school. This is a misguided reason not to include a nutrition program in the curriculum. It would be simply easy to avoid this problem. You don’t spout the marketing rhetoric at all in the class. For something like an egg, simply offer what an egg is made of, the nutrition it offers and let the student (and parents) decide if the food belongs in the child’s diet. Don’t even bring up the industry politics of the egg. The point to school is to create an environment for critical thinking. After all, critical thinking is what we’re expected to do as adults. We need to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions. No one can really make a choice about their own body but each person. This is the very message that needs to be driven home in any nutrition class. Basically, don’t blindly listen to an advertisement that says, “Eggs are good” or, “Eggs are bad”. Come to your own conclusion for yourself. If you eat an egg and it doesn’t agree with you, then clearly eggs are not for you. If the parents are strict vegans and they project that onto their children, then eggs may not be for the child.

Teaching students to listen and pay attention to how their own body reacts to eating a food is the only way that student can make an informed choice. For example, if drinking milk equals upset stomach and indigestion, this could mean lactose intolerance. This is the perfect example of listening to your own body. If you try something and your body reacts in a way that you don’t expect, perhaps you eliminate that food from your diet.

That’s the key element that needs to be taught in a nutrition class. That’s smart food choices. That’s choosing foods based on how your body reacts to it. We are not taught to do this as children. But, it’s something we learn going into are 30s and 40s when we can put 2 and 2 together. We learn which foods work for our bodies and which do not. Most of us learn this by trial and error. Some of us never learn and continue to feed our bodies with foods that make us sick and sicker.

Nutrition Concepts

This is why it’s important to introduce nutrition concepts early in a child’s life. Get them thinking about it in 5th, 6th or 7th grade. By this point, most children have probably experienced getting sick by eating some sort of food. Learning by experience is an important tool that schools can leverage in any nutrition class. Teaching young children about these concepts early will help them use critical thinking skills in the future… a valuable tool that can be used for a whole lot more than food choices and nutrition. It may even save a child’s life for critical food allergies.

For example, when I was aged 10-12, I never put 2 and 2 together about food. My parents would drop me off at the YMCA for a summer camp program. We would be out and about on a bus the whole day. I was packed a bag lunch, just like at school. Every day when we arrived back at the Y and before being picked up, I’d have a raging headache… every single day. One thing that I would get nearly every day was a chocolate candy bar from the vending machine when we would get back. Because we ate promptly at noon, we had no other food for the rest of day from then until around 5PM when I got picked up. I was rather hungry when we got back to the Y, particularly if we had run around outside most of the day. I’d save up the 35¢ or so for the candy bar and buy one most every day.

It never dawned on me that it was likely both the chocolate and the sugar rush that either caused or exacerbated the headache. I can’t say it was a migraine as it didn’t last overnight. Looking back now, I’m almost certain it was a sugar related headache. It might have been low blood sugar due to not eating much after our lunch or it could have been the rapid rise and fall of blood sugar from the precipitous insulin rush. It might have also been that I already had the headache and chocolate bar doubled or tripled its effect.

Since I was never diagnosed and because I had no classes in nutrition, it was only guesswork for both myself and my mother. She always found it curious that I had these, but it was never investigated because it was gone the next morning. If I had had nutrition classes during my time at public school, I might have been able to find the trigger and, with my parents help, eliminate the problem so that I could come home each day after camp feeling just fine with fond memories of what we had just done that day. Instead, most of what we did at camp is just a blur because the headaches seems to have not allowed those memories to “set”. Keep in mind that just a few years later, I worked outdoors every day and rarely, if ever, had headaches at the end of the day. I also didn’t eat candy bars after working. It’s one of life’s critical thinking skills that you must learn when considering nutrition and how nutrition and food affects each of us. This is an important lesson that could be taught much earlier to students, but isn’t.

Grade School Today

It has been a while since I’ve attended grade school, so I will concede it appears school districts have implemented some food science and nutrition programs. It seems that HISD is now offering a Breakfast in the Classroom program which allows students to eat at their desks during morning announcements. Unfortunately, what is served is limited to a single entree item. Students are also given a short amount of time to consume the food. If what’s offered is not something a child can eat (i.e., diabetes, allergies or autism), then they go hungry for the morning. I’d also include that some example meals include Turkey Sausage Egg Sandwich, Beef Kolache, Yogurt, Chicken Biscuit and Strawberry Oatmeal Breakfast Bar as the ‘main entree’. Along with this ‘entree’ portion, the students are served regular or skim milk and a selection from: apple juice, an apple, Craisins or similar fruit (basically, something sugary).

While having the students eat breakfast in the classroom isn’t something that happened in my school days, starting the day off with these fatty and sugary foods isn’t a recipe for focus because the foods served are sometimes too rich to start the day. The school should start the day with fresher whole ingredients that satisfy student hunger better with less emphasis on sausage egg biscuits, dried sugary fruits, breakfast bars and apple juice. You can serve these kinds of rich foods once a week, but not every single day. Serving these as “treat” foods gives the students something to look forward to… or better, offer the students a menu and let the parents and/or student pick their morning breakfast in advance. If the student fails to choose their breakfast, then serve them the ‘selected’ entree of the school’s choice. Letting the parent decide what their child eats at school allows the parent to head off health problems with their child.

HISD also claims to be helping students learn about food and nutrition. Here’s an excerpt from HISD’s web site about its nutrition education program:

Houston ISD is committed to teaching food literacy and food inclusion through a nutrition-focused curriculum. Food literacy starts with understanding where food comes from. It then expands to understanding relationships with food. This begins at a personal level; how different foods can be beneficial to the body and how some foods do not have any benefits for the body. This includes an openness to trying new foods and seeking out exposure to new foods. The relationship with food expands to cultural preference with foods, understanding both personal culture and others’ cultures and how that impacts food choice and why preferences vary between cultures. Expanding even further, food literacy includes the relationship with food/agriculture on a global, environmental, and economical scale. Food inclusion promotes a pattern of healthy choices that are flexible enough to fit into many cultural preferences and promote balance, variety and moderation. Overall, this means making delicious choices that benefit your body. The message of health should promote a positive relationship with food, avoiding messaging that use fear instead of facts. Nutrition Services aims to educate our students in the classroom, in the garden and in the cafeteria.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any information on HISD’s web site that discusses its class offerings, its class content, how or when the students can take these classes (i.e., are they electives?, are all grade levels required to learn this?, etc), or even if this curriculum is required by the students. It’s good that HISD has itself learned the effect that food has on students in focus, but I’m not sure that what’s being served to the students and what is taught encourages students to eat healthy meals and understand why some foods are to be considered ‘good’ and some are considered ‘bad’. It seems most of what HISD has implemented is more being driven by bad press against the school district and keeping up with competing school districts than actual commitment to the importance of food.

What HISD has done so far is definitely a step in the right direction. However, it’s nowhere near getting the importance that it needs in the classroom. Food and nutrition is equally important to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses. Food and nutrition clearly falls under science, but it is almost never treated with the same level of importance as a biology, physics, chemistry and others. Teaching the students the importance of food in the world may lead one of these students into a food breakthrough that helps out the world. That can’t happen when students aren’t properly exposed to the importance and role of food in everyday human life.

Sure, we must eat food to live. That’s the very basics of food. Food science goes well beyond that by enabling students to become productive adults who might create a food invention that can feed the hungry of the world. Yes, food keeps our own bodies fueled, but food science education can bring about positive food changes in the world. Only these new fresh eyes can see what adults cannot.

Other ISDs

In researching this article, I’ve found many larger ISDs also offering Breakfast in the Classroom programs. For example, New York and Los Angeles both have BIC programs. In the case of LA Unified, the students basically do all of the work from retrieving the food in a cart, to serving themselves, to cleaning up and returning the cart. Here’s a video that describes Los Angeles Unified School District’s program:

Of course, this doesn’t mean every school district offers a BIC program yet. Many still do not. They may offer breakfast in a cafeteria, but apparently participation in cafeteria breakfasts is as low as 30%. It makes sense, arrive at school early to eat breakfast or sleep in longer? I’d say that one is a no-brainer. No student wants to get to school any earlier than they absolutely have to. However, serving breakfast in the classroom is a smarter approach because it means students don’t have to show up early to eat breakfast. Students are already be in their first class by a certain time anyway and eating breakfast during that dead 10-15 minutes while the teacher is performing morning attendance, making announcements and getting their daily plans together is a smarter way to use that time. Though, it is also costlier because someone needs to pay for the meals. I would hope that students could bring their own meals from home and are allowed to eat those instead of eating the supplied food if they so choose.

If I could have eaten food during the first 15 minutes of my first class, I certainly would have taken advantage. However, at the time, my school had a strict no-eating-in-the-classroom policy. Though, some of us did sneak eat when we had the chance. We didn’t do it often because the penalties were pretty severe if caught. It also meant less food to eat at lunch.

While I’m all for the Breakfast in the Classroom program idea, the way it’s currently implemented is a bit lacking both from a nutrition perspective and definitely from a tailored nutrition perspective. In the case of food, one size does not fit all.

Health begins in the Kitchen

While performing exercise improves the body’s conditioning, it doesn’t always help with weight loss. There are many people who exercise every day and never lose any weight. Why? Because their nutrition is wrong. Many people mistakenly believe that exercising equals weight loss. That’s not true. Weight loss begins in the kitchen, not at the gym. To lose weight, you have to eat smart. Eating smart means understanding your body’s energy requirements for the day. In fact, you can lose weight simply by changing your food lifestyle.

I write, “food lifestyle” instead of “diet” because the word “diet” has negative connotations. It also has connotations to mean “temporary”. Meaning, you do it for a short time, lose the weight and then go back to “regular eating”. That doesn’t work. That’s also a recipe for the Yo-Yo problem. Weight goes down, then weight goes back up. In fact, the Yo-Yo problem is actually worse on health than staying at a consistent weight, even if somewhat overweight.

To lose weight, you need to change your thinking about food from “dieting” to making food lifestyle choices. What “lifestyle choices” means is changing the way you think about and eat on a permanent daily basis. For example, drop the candies, cakes and sugary foods from your diet entirely and adopt a cheat day system. Make the healthy foods your primary goto foods. If you want to snack, grab carrots, celery, broccoli and cherry tomatoes instead of a granola bar, a breakfast bar, chips or even cereal.

Adopt a don’t buy it attitude. If you keep the “bad” foods at a minimum around the house, you can’t cheat on them. No ice cream in the freezer? You can’t eat it. No cookies? You can’t eat them. And so on. This is a healthy food lifestyle. Instead, keep carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and cherry tomatoes around. Keep oranges, apples and bananas around. If you have these around the house, then you’ll eat them if you really want a snack.

Better, don’t snack and wait until your next full meal. Sometimes it’s only an hour away. In fact, if you’re an hour or less away from your next meal, get some water and wait for that. In fact, water is a good quencher. If you think you’re hungry, go get some water and drink it first. You might find that that satisfies your hunger for long enough to get you to your next meal. If you do find that you really do need a snack, grab something fresh (fruits and vegetables) over something packaged (chips, granola, breakfast bars, cereal).

For the cheat day, you can eat out, eat ice cream or basically eat anything you want, though I always recommend eating in moderation. Don’t stuff yourself to the point of being sick or uncomfortable. Eat until you’re no longer hungry, not until you are “full”… there is a difference. This allows you to partake in holiday meals, birthday meals and other special occasions. Leave these decadent foods to the special occasions, not your regular meals. Also, don’t skip meals because you’re “not hungry”. Eat something anyway… it doesn’t have to be a lot, it just needs to be enough to keep your body regular. If you want to eat a cookie or a piece of cake occasionally, that’s fine. It shouldn’t be everyday. If you’re single eating alone, don’t buy a gallon of ice cream or full sized pie. Buy smaller portions and individual sizes.

Food Combinations

Without getting into a ton of nutrition detail here, eating certain foods together is more likely to encourage weight gain than eating these foods an hour apart. For example, drinking milk together with cereal is a great way to gain weight. There’s fat (and sugar) in the milk and sugar in the cereal. The sugar in the cereal and milk act on the body to release insulin which then prompts the body to uptake the fat in the milk into storage via adipose tissue. This is especially true when you consider what other foods you might have already eaten that day. You don’t want to encourage the body to store fat. You want the encourage the body to use the fat stores that are already there, this reducing weight.

There are many food combinations that can lead to fat gain. There are also food combinations that lead to fat loss simply by eating certain foods together or eating certain foods far apart (or not at all).

Of course, calories also matter. Calories are a unit of energy consumed versus expended. Unless your body is in a near constant calorie deficit, you could gain weight by consuming the wrong foods together.

There are two ways to get into a calorie deficit. The first is obvious… exercise. The second is through food choices. Exercise doesn’t guarantee a calorie deficit because you can still consume more calories than you have expended. For this reason, exercise doesn’t guarantee weight loss… only a calorie deficit does, and that is achieved in the kitchen, not in the gym.

Kids, Food and Obesity

Armed with that information, let’s bring it full circle. Food isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. Offering the same Breakfast in the Classroom meal to all students may not be the smartest nutrition approach for every student and may still lead to obesity in some students. For example, if a student already ate a huge breakfast before coming to school, they may still consume the BIC food simply because it’s there. This encourages overeating. The BIC program in no way polices the student to find out if they have already eaten a meal for the day. It simply assumes that every student hasn’t eaten before coming to school. Many haven’t, but some have.

This is a lax approach to nutrition for the students. If the school wants to be responsible for maintaining a healthy student weight, then they should be responsible for all of the meals for the student during their charge. The parents should refrain from serving the student any food other than dinner… and even then, the school should provide a nutrition plan for the student so that the parent knows what and how much to serve the student at the end of the day as a guide. Of course, the parent is free to do whatever they want, but that encourages obesity if they do.

When creating exercise programs for the students, the school should take into account the nutrition being fed to the students and offer exercise programs that work in concert with the amount of food being served. This means that the students will receive a balanced amount of exercise against food intake and lead the student to maintain their body weight.

If a student is overweight or obese, the school needs to have a nutrition counselor on staff who can tailor a meal program to help the student get back into a healthy weight by tailoring their meals to lead to that outcome. This means a tailored breakfast and lunch program. Once the student is back at their correct body weight, put the student onto the balanced nutrition program to maintain that weight.

Right now, the schools are simply throwing standardized food at the students to help maintain attendance (primary goal) and keep the students awake and focused (secondary goal). Those goals, while commendable, don’t aid the student into a healthy body weight. The schools aren’t taking a holistic approach to food, exercise and nutrition to not only keep students focused, but also to help the students maintain a healthy body weight for their height. A holistic approach is a smartest approach for the students health and well-being. School districts are still no where near this level of holistic understanding of food and nutrition for students. If the schools were to tailor food programs to an individual student’s needs, healthy body weight can be achieved and maintained giving bully students one less piece of ammo against fellow students. More than the bullying, it teaches the student how to maintain a healthy body weight going into adulthood (the most important aspect). Empowering students with understanding of proper nutrition and how to manage their own bodies will give them a huge edge when getting a job.

Being overweight or obese can affect your chances at landing a job. Being at a healthy body weight gives you that extra first impression you need when interviewing for a job. Don’t think for a moment that being overweight isn’t considered by a hiring manager. If a specific job requires a certain level of mobility, movement and carrying capacity, a hiring manager might not consider someone who is overweight or who appears overall unhealthy. Weight discrimination is real in the job market. Learning how to manage weight early in childhood and in the teens goes a long way to maintaining that weight into adulthood. Children who fail to be taught this are at a disadvantage when becoming an adult.

Schools need to consider a holistic and individualistic approach to food and nutrition when putting together their food and exercise programs for students. One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to nutrition and exercise.

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