Honey, we’re out of control

TELEVISION/A new TV series hosted by a Penn prof helps families get back on track with diet, lifestyle.

Lisa Hark, "Honey We’re Killing the Kids"

Photo credit: DIscovery Communications

What does it take to get Americans to change their children’s diets? A new TV show hosted by a School of Medicine professor is using cutting edge technology to show parents what their chubby young kids will look like at age 40 if they continue to eat junk food and favor TV and video games over exercise. The results aren’t pretty.

When mom and dad see Junior morph from fresh-faced kid to overweight adult with bad skin and lank hair, they shape up fast says Lisa Hark, director of Penn’s Nutrition Education and Prevention Program and host of “Honey We’re Killing the Kids!” which premiered April 9 on TLC. After the initial shock, and an on-air dressing down by Hark, the family—there are 13 in the series, from Houston to Long Island to Norristown—submits to a three-week diet and lifestyle makeover designed to replace burgers with veggies and couch time with judo and tap dance.

In the first episode the children—Robbie (8), Kevin (10) and James (12)—put up a vigorous fight to keep the status quo, objecting noisily as TVs are removed from bedrooms, tofu makes an appearance at the dinner table and for the first time in their lives they are required to do chores around the house. The oldest, James, even makes a break for it on his bicycle, only to be apprehended a few hundred yards from home. After three weeks, though, Harks’ strict regimen has started to pay off. Robbie munches on apples instead of cookies, Kevin wonders aloud why they used to eat so much sugar and James admits it’s fun to do stuff with the family.

Hark, who has written several books on nutrition, including last year’s “Nutrition for Life” and the soon-to-be-published “The Whole Grain Miracle Diet,” had both the academic and media-savvy background the producers of the show were looking for. “I also had the ability to get tough with the families,” says Hark. “My job was to deliver rules.” The mother of two admits she had little idea of what she was getting herself into, and her own family had to do some adjusting to the rigorous filming schedule which took her away from home every weekend from last September through the beginning of April. “Everyone survived,” laughs Hark, who logged 55 plane rides for the project.

Hark was struck by how poorly the families in the show ate but she thinks they’re far from atypical. “I think these are regular people eating regular food, and eating too much,” she says. “There’s nobody cooking in these families, and when they do, it’s processed food.”

By giving the families easy to follow rules—”dump the junk,” “sack the sugar,” “limit screen time”—Hark helped the parents regain control of their lives, and their kids. Since food was only part of the problem, Hark also revamped other aspects of family life, insisting on regular bedtimes, banishing bad behavior, getting the children off the sofa and onto their bikes and reintroducing families to their dining room tables.

Hark says people ask her why an academic such as herself would disrupt her life to such a degree to tape a TV show. “I’m doing it to reach the masses,” she says. “This is an important message for the future of our country. They’re making the show for entertainment. I’m doing it for education. The show is funny but it has a lot of messages. I want viewers to think about their own diet and lifestyle.”

A screening of “Honey We’re Killing the Kids” will take place April 24 at 11:45 a.m. at Dunlop Auditorium, Stemmler Hall, 36th and Hamilton Walk. A healthy, whole grain lunch will be provided and the first 100 attendees will receive a free copy of Hark’s new book, “The Whole Grain Diet Miracle.”

Originally published on April 13, 2006