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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lessons learned from Jack Spratt and others

By Dick Hirsch

Let me give you a specific example directly related to the serious problem of childhood obesity. There are too many overweight children in the US and it is a serious public health issue, a situation that concerns health officials at every level. I am going to name names because we all know that the discussion of such matters has much more impact when individual experiences can be cited.

So consider the between meals snacking indulgence of a young woman of whom you may have heard, a Miss Muffet. I didn’t get her first name, but her reputation is well-known and involves sitting on her tuffet and constantly munching away on an apparently endless supply of curds and whey. She doesn’t seem to realize that is a very unhealthy diet, high in both calories and cholesterol. She has gained considerable weight over the years and now finds it increasingly difficult to rise from her comfortable seat on the tuffet, a small stool.

On those occasions when she does rise to a standing position people have noticed that she walks much more slowly than she did years ago. There was a recent instance, however, when she suddenly leapt from her tuffet and actually ran down the road toward her home. This is the report of an eyewitness:

“Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet eating her curds and whey, when along came a spider who sat down beside here and frightened Miss Muffet away.”

There is little doubt that the spider was drawn to the tuffet by the aroma of the snacks. Hindsight clearly indicates that Miss Muffet was afflicted with a case of arachnophobia, an extreme fear of spiders. But in that famous incident the unexpected appearance of the spider resulted in a fortuitous circumstance; it prevented her from eating her fill of those unhealthy snacks, at least for one day.
The essential facts of that episode have been well-documented over the years and I suggest that the example set by Miss Muffet is being emulated by today’s children, sitting on a tuffet-like contrivance and passing the time by snacking while playing video games or watching TV. The literature is replete with tales of young children, like Miss Muffet, tempted into overeating when confronted with certain seductive but unhealthy foods. Such eating has been characterized as an epidemic.

There are other cases that have been widely chronicled. You may recall hearing of the experience years ago around the holidays of a boy named Jack Horner and his exploit with a pastry. Anecdotal evidence indicates that Jack was a personable youngster, normally well-behaved but given to occasional tantrums, misbehaviors which, in later years, may have been diagnosed as a symptom of an uncontrollable craving for sugar. His story was recorded for posterity with this verse:

Little Jack Horner
Sat in in a corner
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said: “What a good boy am I.”

The fact is that Jack Horner was not such a good boy. He was a good student but he wasn’t very popular with his classmates. He was probably a little chubby and somewhat clumsy while playing games, slow-footed and unable to elude those chasing him while playing tag. What was the role of his parents? One clue might be that they left him alone in a room with a plum pie. We can conclude that Mr. and Mrs. Horner were permissive, allowing Jack to eat between meals, gorge himself on sweets and lead a sedentary life. No further testimony is available but I would guess that as he aged he became known in his neighborhood as Big Jack Horner.

Best-sellers have been written about the dreadful eating habits of the young. Mostly they were sugar addicts, like Georgy Porgy who overdosed on pudding and pie, Simple Simon whose only acknowledged interest was pies, and Handy-Spandy Jack-a-Dandy, who lusted for plum cake and sugar candy. Another vignette involves Tommy Tucker, an aspiring musician who sang for his supper, but who earned so little on those singing engagements that he could afford only white bread and butter.

Of all the characters with whom children become familiar, only one gained renown for adhering to a healthy diet. That was Jack Spratt. He refrained from eating fat and research indicates that would have aided his quest for a long, healthy life. The outlook for Mrs. Spratt, who loved fatty foods, was quite the opposite and her fate remains unknown.