Tough Love for Junk Food Families

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The pre-adolescent on the big screen is morphing slowly, and not looking so good as he goes. There he is at age 20, his wispy beard scraggly and his eyes set dark and deep. Soon he’s at 30, his arms drooping and his belly widening. Finally, the morphing stops at 40. His jowls are too jowly; his wrinkles, too wrinkly; his stomach, just too much.

Dr. Lisa Hark Gr’95 turns to the boy’s parents, who are under a dim spotlight on a cavernous stage. They are alone and embarrassed. Hark admonishes them that this could be the grown-up version of their child if they all don’t shape up and start eating and exercising right. The parents bow their heads and promise, for their familial good, to do much, much better.

Such is the nature of the crux moment on every episode of Honey, We’re Killing the Kids, a new reality series on The Learning Channel. Its taskmaster star is Hark, who in her more formal life has been director of the Nutrition Education and Prevention Program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for the last 15 years.

Among the Ryan Seacrests and Jeff Probsts of reality TV hostdom, there are few academics of Hark’s stature. For a show like Honey, We’re Killing the Kids, though, where the message is nutrition and family lifestyle, Hark’s credentials fit.

Each episode, she takes a family in need of shaping up—sometimes both nutritionally and in mutual respect—and gives the members new rules to live by. She has huge refrigerator magnets with admonitions and warnings and hands out detailed notebooks to each person in the family. There are bins in secluded parts of the house where sodas and cookies and TV remotes go, if not to die, at least to be confined until the family can figure out how to use them properly.

“I am dealing with lifestyle. They are pairing nutrition with lifestyle because they both have family messages,” says Hark. “We are giving them skills they can use: swimming for exercise, maybe, or setting the table correctly, or eating together instead of apart. Nutrition is a complicated area. Kids are up all hours of the night because they eat too much sugar—and then they fall asleep in school. They can’t concentrate. A lot of things need to be tied together.”

Hark said the producers of Honey, We’re Killing the Kidssaw her doing interviews and other media spots in support of her 2005 book, Nutrition for Life. She did a test shoot in the summer, and by fall she was on board shooting the first season’s episodes.

The show is an offshoot of a similar program the BBC had been doing for three years before. The computerized morphing displays central to the attraction of Honey, We’re Killing the Kids started on the BBC show. Basically, the computer program takes a current video of the child and his or her parents and projects what he or she may look like at various ages up to 40, depending on what lifestyle he or she chooses. If it is the presumed current road of lousy eating, not much exercise, and its attendant potential disorders, the kid becomes an unhealthy looking adult. If he or she chooses Hark’s reform path, the morphing tends to be more amenable, with smiles, slimness, and healthiness as the hallmarks of the aging subject.

Hark grew up in suburban Havertown, Pennsylvania, and got her bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Temple University, her master’s in nutrition from Columbia, and a Ph.D. in education from Penn. She views herself as an educator and started teaching medical students about nutrition and lifestyle in 1990.

“The students would say, ‘Why didn’t a doctor say what you say?’ so I decided to devote my career to teaching, rather than just research,” she says. She has written or collaborated on several books from nutrition texts to her latest, The Whole Grain Miracle Diet. “I’ve gone from teaching students to doctors to consumers. People ask me why I’ve gone to television. That is easy, because it is where you can reach a lot of people to educate them.”

She is not worried that the message will become repetitive, that telling some family of five to make sure veggies are on the diet won’t become tiresome week after week.

“Every family has different rules,” she says. “Sure, inevitably, eating too much junk food will come up a lot, but there are any number of lifestyle changes a family can make.”

Despite the slight hokeyness of the morph machine, Hark says that being on television in an entertaining way gets her message of a healthy lifestyle across.

“Everyone has a feeling that we are helping these children, especially, who are on the shows. My desire is that people who are watching the show will really feel hope and make changes.”

—Robert Strauss

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