In our quest to find entertaining and educational television shows for our kindergartner, I stumbled across an animated show on Netflix called “Ask the StoryBots.” In each episode, a child asks a question of the StoryBots, and they try to answer it by traveling to different locations and talking with different “experts” or individuals who might have answers. Most of these questions are about the world we live in, such as “why is the sky blue?” and “how do ears hear?” and they are answered in an accessible way. My daughter and I have found most of the episodes funny, entertaining, and interesting, as the show uses lots of humor and catchy songs to educate its audience. The StoryBots themselves are cute and silly and full of boundless curiosity. And the show also has guest appearances from a number of recognizable celebrities, including Snoop Dogg, Zoe Saldana, and Jason Sudeikis, among others.
When I came across the title for episode 2 in Season 2, I automatically cringed a little bit: “Why Can’t I Eat Dessert All the Time?” Teaching kids, especially little ones, about nutrition can be a tricky thing to do. I remember when our daughter came home from preschool one day and told us that her teacher made her eat lunch in a certain way (i.e., sandwich and veggies first and then dessert), I knew that we would have to step in and explain our food philosophy. The teacher was open to our request to let Lorelai eat her lunch in any order she would like, thankfully. But as the days and weeks went by, we started hearing Lorelai talk about “good/healthy foods” and “bad/unhealthy foods,” phrases we never use in our home, and I knew that it was going to be an uphill battle to maintain her intuitive relationship with food and her body.
Lorelai and I immediately skipped over episode 2 of Season 2 because I was afraid that it would be just another fearmongering treatise on why sugar is bad for us. Later on, I watched the episode by myself, and while I did not find it as harmful as it could have been, it definitely was not ideal.
The StoryBots field a question from a young girl named Lilyn who asks them why she cannot just eat dessert all of the time, as she does not like other food. The StoryBots are stumped and tell Lilyn that they will find the answer to this question and get back to her. The first stop for the StoryBots is at a bakery to ask the baker (played by Christina Applegate) why we can’t eat dessert all of the time. In an attempt to answer the question, the baker rolls out a chalkboard filled with formulaic equations and organic chemistry and begins a very lengthy (and swiftly spoken) explanation, using complicated terms that a child most certainly could not understand. She tells them that “an excess of monosaccharides can have an inherently negative effect on everything from our teeth to our metabolism.” She also explains that given the standardized 2,000-calorie diet, “the ratio of calories to nutrients found within your average sugary sweets deviates significantly from what has come to be widely accepted healthy percentages for what one’s caloric intake should be derived from.” Not surprisingly, the StoryBots are confused and at a loss for words.
Obviously, there is a lot that I don’t love about this explanation, but I especially disliked the part about the standardized 2,000-calorie diet. As we know, the 2,000-calorie standardized diet was created as part of the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act in 1990 as a way of simplifying the nutrition label to make it easier to calculate percentages of daily values. 2,000 calories was settled on after the USDA surveyed men and women and asked them how many calories they ate in a day via self-report. Women reported eating between 1,600-2,200 calories per day while men reported taking in between 2,000-3,000 calories/day. So, using these calorie ranges, researchers decided on 2,000 as it was a “nice round number” that would be easy to use for calculations. That being said, 2,000 calories is an arbitrary amount as we truly do not know how many calories one “should” be eating each day. Some folks need much more and others need much less, and the factors that determine this are largely genetic.
As the StoryBots stare at the baker with utter confusion, Jake the Supreme Cupcake (a cupcake that is a “bad boy”) tells them that they can, in fact, eat dessert all of the time and invites them to join him on a journey. The group ends up at Tummy University, where Jake brings the StoryBots to the Alpha Kobbler Pie fraternity. There the partiers (sweets including cake, Twinkies, and gummy bears) are having a sugar rave and initiating new frat pledges, one of which is a piece of broccoli named Brock. Jake explains that the parties at this fraternity are the best because they are “packed with sugar, which gives you short bursts of energy.” All of the attendees are basically bouncing off the walls and acting “crazy,” which they attribute to being “full of sugar.” Brock finds himself at a ritual initiation called “The Dunk,” where pledges are dunked into chocolate, and he decides to bow out.
At the same time, one of the StoryBots, Bing, gets swept up in the rave and is goaded into chugging a two-liter bottle of soda. Brock warns the StoryBots that drinking a two- liter bottle of soda is bad as “it’s almost 100 times the amount of sugar you find in a carrot!” Terrified, the StoryBots try to stop Bing from drinking the soda, but they arrive too late and find him chugging away. Of course, directly after this, Bing starts acting “crazy” like the others, sliding down the stairs on a sled, doing a cannonball into a glass of soda, etc. The StoryBots look on in horror and ask Brock what they can do. He tells them that they will just have to wait as “sugar gives you lots of energy, but you crash and burn pretty quickly.” Almost immediately, the partiers run out of energy, and all of them have sugar hangovers.
The StoryBots end up leaving with Brock as they do not feel that they got their question answered. Brock also wants to find his place at Tummy University. The group runs into the campus police, who are “healthy fats” including avocado and fish. The police chastise Bing for eating too much sugar and are surprised to see Brock coming out of the rave. The police recommend that Brock speak with Dean Banana who is known to say “every food can make the body a better place.” The police then go on to explain that they are healthy fats that are good for protecting the cells in the body. On the way to finding Dean Banana, the group comes across the “Protein Gym,” where a large sweaty T-Bone steak runs over to the group. He has an Austrian accent (reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger) and tells them that protein is needed for building big muscles, and he challenges them to lift heavy weights. Brock does not feel that this is a good fit for him either.
Next the group comes upon a group of foods (including a bowl of pasta, a loaf of bread, and a potato) lined up at the starting line of a track, getting ready to run a race. Brock tries racing with the group who explain that they are “packed with the good carbohydrates,” which give the body sustainable energy, unlike simple sugar. Brock is unable to keep up with the runners and ends up collapsing at the track and then waking up in a hospital bed at the campus medical center. The doctors are fruits and vegetables and introduce themselves as “vitamins and minerals” that “prevent people from getting sick, make the cells in the body strong, and strengthen the immune system.” The doctors share that Brock’s vitamin and mineral levels are “off the charts,” as he has tons of folate, vitamin C, potassium, and calcium, and they tell him that he would be a great fit at the medical center. Dean Banana shows up and confirms that Brock has found his place among the nutrients. He explains that “while a little bit of sugar tastes good,” it’s protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and vitamins and minerals that “make people strong, smart, and healthy.” The StoryBots believe that they have finally found the answer to their question and are excited to share it with Lilyn.
Overall, the episode is not completely terrible. It is amusing and interesting and provides some solid nutrition education. What I take issue with though is how the simple carbohydrates are portrayed as “naughty crazy partiers,” while the other nutrients are shows as the “good” ones. Young children have very binary thinking, and setting up this “good food/bad food” dichotomy is not necessarily helpful. The message that children will hear from this is that “good foods” such as protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and vitamins and minerals are to be put up on a pedestal while simple sugars make you sick. This also gives simple sugars the allure of the forbidden food and can result in children over-valuing these foods rather than just having a neutral place in the diet. Kids are naturally born with the ability to be intuitive eaters, and the more that we intervene and try to push them in the direction of “healthy” foods, away from “bad” foods and scare them about the consequences of eating said “bad” foods, the more likely that they will lose their ability to eat intuitively.
Aside from very general nutrition education, namely telling kids that eating a wide variety of foods will help their bodies grow and feel good, I don’t think that getting into the nitty-gritty of how protein, fat, and carbohydrates function is particularly helpful. In our diet-obsessed culture that demonizes sugar and is responsible for the “childhood obesity epidemic,” these types of messages around nutrition do more harm than good. If you do end up watching this episode with your child, please be sure to explain that sugar is not the enemy and that there is more to food than just the nutrients they contain. Food is about connection, tradition, history and pleasure, not just nutritional content.