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The bitter aftertaste of diet culture

In+a+world+where+Instagram-worthy+salads+often+overshadow+childhood+classics%2C+diet+culture+has+reshaped+the+snacks+that+once+fueled+our+youthful+spirits.
Jessica Wang
In a world where “Instagram-worthy” salads often overshadow childhood classics, diet culture has reshaped the snacks that once fueled our youthful spirits.

In place of goldfish are air-fried croutons, instead of Minute Maid is lemon-lime sparkling water turned still. In a world where “Instagram-worthy” salads often overshadow childhood classics, diet culture has reshaped the snacks that once fueled our youthful spirits.

This shift in focus has transformed the essence of childhood snacks, and not for the better. Diet culture casts a shadow over what used to be joyful moments of indulgence. The result? A new generation of childhood snacks that often falls short in terms of quality and, more importantly, what I like to call the “happiness factor.”

The first and most noticeable victim of diet culture is everyone’s least-favorite carbohydrate, sugar. While it’s essential to address the issue of excessive sugar consumption, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Many classic childhood beverages, once beloved for their sweetness, now come in “sugar-free” or “diet” versions that lack the flavor and appeal of their full-sugar counterparts. Of course, constant consumption of sugary foods isn’t healthy for anyone, and likely is the reason for rising obesity rates in children — but the problem lies in a lack of moderation, not the existence of non-diet foods.

The most egregious violation, in my experience, has been the replacement of sugar with monk-fruit extract in juices such as Capri Sun. In my childhood, there was no advertising as “sugar-free” or “reduced-sugar”: the best we were going to get was “made from real fruit concentrate,” and that’s all we needed.

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After a hot day of summer activities, I always knew there would be a Yeti cooler filled with juice pouches provided by camp counselors. Fruit punch, strawberry kiwi, sometimes even pacific cooler: the from-concentrate flavors are forever tied to summer-sweet memories of nostalgia.

Nowadays, what once were joy-filled juice pouches feel soulless as they drain down my gullet: the apple-flavor is less crisp, the strawberry less juicy. The excitement has been sucked out of these once-uplifting refreshments. There is no “happiness factor.” Children are left with artificially sweetened, bland options that do little to evoke the simple pleasure of a tasty snack.

Driven by a confluence of factors such as social media, the fitness industry and the pursuit of idealized body images, the growth of diet culture in recent years resulted in a pervasive obsession with weight, body size and restrictive eating patterns. Perpetuating the stigmatization of larger bodies, it reinforces harmful stereotypes and fosters a culture of judgment and discrimination. 

By nurturing a healthy relationship with food, children grow up with a genuine appreciation for the joy that comes from savoring life’s simple pleasures, including their favorite snacks

Diet culture’s impact on childhood snacks goes beyond sugar. It has infiltrated other aspects of snack offerings. The demand for low-calorie and low-fat options has led to the creation of snacks that are, frankly, disappointing in terms of flavor. Kids are missing out on the delightful experience of enjoying a little treat as they are served bland, cardboard-like alternatives that leave them unfulfilled. Instead of delivering on the promise of tasty so-called “health,” new-age snacks remind us that sometimes, less really is less.

Moreover, diet culture breeds a fear of indulgence and an unhealthy relationship with food in children from an early age. Instead of teaching them to enjoy treats in moderation, we promote the notion that certain foods are inherently “bad” and should be avoided at all costs. This results in guilt, anxiety and a damaging perspective on eating.

Happiness is a vital ingredient in a child’s life. Snacks are an integral part of creating lasting, joyful memories, but diet culture has diminished this to a question of calories. Recognize that happiness and health can coexist. Teach children about balance, moderation and the importance of enjoying life’s pleasures without succumbing to the pressures of unrealistic dietary standards.

While promoting healthier options is essential, emphasize also the importance of taste, enjoyment and balance in children’s lives. By nurturing a healthy relationship with food, children grow up with a genuine appreciation for the joy that comes from savoring life’s simple pleasures, including their favorite snacks. It’s time to put the joy (and if the joy presents itself as sugar, so be it) back into childhood snacking and let kids relish the happiness it brings.

This story was originally published on Harker Aquila on November 29, 2023.