The Advent Calendar As Obesity Villain

After all these years of considering how the enjoyment of food intersects with culture, and with the risk of excess weight, Childhood Obesity News salutes the discovery of a new suspected obesity villain.

Advent is the Christian ecclesiastical season leading up to Christmas. A traditional Advent calendar is fabricated from cleverly layered and cut cardboard, with one big picture on the top layer (see illustration, left side) and at least two dozen incised flaps. Numbers indicate the order in which the tiny doors are to be opened, and behind each one is another picture, a line of Scripture, a little poem — something printed, anyway.

In plenty of families, it is a tradition for the child or children to open one little door each morning, and possibly even ponder on whatever is found behind it. At some point, it was decided that a child’s attention could better be captured by sweetening the lesson with chocolate bait. This was beneficial to manufacturers, because, naturally, now, individual Advent calendars would be needed, to avoid fights over the candy.

Sounding the alarm

Dr. Eva Orsmond, an anti-sugar campaigner who runs a weight-loss clinic and has been on “Dancing with the Stars,” came out against confectionary Advent calendars in a big way. She is quoted as saying:

Even the tiniest of these calendars can have a huge effect on the health of adults and children especially… Giving children chocolate at such a young age, in a gimmicky way like that, leads them to developing bad habits.

Sweet treats seem to be non-stop for children these days and are focused around school breaks such as Christmas, Easter and Halloween… Why does every celebration involving children have to center around heavily calorie-laden treats?

The pushback

Of course, a sector of the Internet kicked up a fuss. Some comment-leavers insisted that starting each morning, for a month, with a bite of chocolate — which, after all, can hold up to 100 calories — is the very essence of moderation and common sense. Some pointed out the logistical difficulty if more than one relative donates a chocolate Advent calendar.

At a web forum called Netmums, a mother wrote about a dispute with a neighbor who said a 2-year-old should be given his Advent calendar chocolate not in the morning, but after lunch. The mum was distressed by this serious break with tradition. The issue under discussion was the timing — not the basic question of whether or not this toddler should be fed chocolate.

Parents who responded were overwhelmingly in favor, and some insultingly so. For example:

Your neighbors would probably have a heart attack if they met me & my son… he is two months old and has already tried a tiny little bit of ice cream & a tiny drop of chocolate sauce off the end of daddy’s finger 😛

Let him have the advent calender hun, your little boy will absolutely love it and surely that is more important than what some goody two shoes neighbor thinks…

Via a popular podcast, a mother of seven scoffed at the idea that doling out chocolates could damage children’s health, because that has become the norm. (We will not even pause to remark on the wobbly logic.) This lady asserted that the average family spends a larger percentage of its food budget on treats than on fruits and vegetables, her tone implying, again, agreement with the sentiment expressed by long-dead philosopher Alexander Pope: “Whatever is, is right.”

It gets worse

Meanwhile, the concept of the Advent calendar expanded to include the hanging of 24 separate decorated Christmas stockings, with a gift appearing in one each day. Or large flat boxes with multiple compartments, or miniature chests-of-drawers (see illustration, right side).

On the plus side, some companies offer specially made chocolates for diabetes patients, and people who are sensitive to milk products or allergic to nuts, and even for the person who keeps kosher, which makes no sense at all. Of course, if making sense were the object, the whole chocolate calendar thing would be dropped.

Instead, it went in the opposite direction. Now, like so many once-sacred traditions, the venerable Advent calendar has become just one more excuse for overindulgence. Now, decadence is a feature, as advertisers tout calendars that dispense cookies, fudge, pork rinds, mince pies, popcorn, cheese, wine, and several varieties of hard liquor.

There are some neutral or not-too-awful choices like herbal teas and protein balls, and even some non-food options, like bracelet charms. Of course, an enterprising parent could use the drawers or the multiple miniature stockings and fill the run-up to Christmas with an almost unlimited array of non-food trinkets.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Advent calendars adding to the childhood obesity crisis, warns TV’s Dr Eva,” Independent.ie, 12/06/18
Source: “Chocolate Advent Calendar,” Netmums.com. 01/11/15
Source: “Are Advent Calendars Contributing To Childhood Obesity?,” Player.fm
Image sources (left to right): thejoyshop/eBay, universaldirectbrands/eBay

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Presentations

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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