National Voices

Saturday, May 11 2013 10:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: Iron Man's healthful metamorphosis

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    Esther Cepeda

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Is it just me or is Tony Stark on a health kick?

In the third "Iron Man" -- a series that spent its first two installments glorifying the reckless life of a spoiled, rich genius -- Stark, the man inside the metallic exoskeleton, seems to have finally taken a turn toward wellness.

No spoiler alerts are needed for me to point out that, though subtle, Stark set beautiful examples of healthful eating throughout this latest episode.

In a scene set in what appeared to be a familiar chain restaurant of the burger, hot wing and beer variety, Stark joked with a pal in front of a lush vegetable plate of carrots, celery and what appeared to be broccoli.

Later in the movie, we see him snack on a sliced apple, working in a room with a cart loaded with fresh fruit and juices. In another scene, Stark tells an ex-girlfriend that he ate a gluten-free waffle for breakfast.

At one point, suffering from despair and fatigue, he asks a young co-conspirator to bring him something to eat -- "a tuna fish sandwich."

To put it bluntly, I didn't much care for Stark's boozy, womanizing, arrogant persona in the first two "Iron Man" movies and in "The Avengers." Yet there I was last weekend, annoying my popcorn-chomping family members as I shook their shoulders every time the ultra-cool playboy made a healthy food choice.

This might sound trivial to anyone who doesn't agonize over how to slip vegetables and salads onto the weekly dinner menu without inspiring a hunger strike. But I have to feed two boys who have spent their whole lives in a society that not only assumes children won't eat their vegetables, but rarely tries serving them at school or in "kid-friendly" restaurants.

These are children who, from preschool, were taught by their academic institutions that "snacks" are vitamin-fortified sugary cereals and cookies, salty pretzels or anything that comes in a cheerfully colored crinkly plastic bag.

So Stark modeling healthy food choices on the big screen? This is huge.

Movies today, specifically the kind that are made to appeal to teens, are generally populated by guys desperate to find their next beer, joint or jumbo coffee -- that is when they aren't on an energy-drink-fueled quest for junk from the corner store or a fast-food chain.

Hey, I get that the best fiction diligently imitates life. So even though we live in a country where so many children are overweight or obese that federal health officials and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend universal cholesterol screenings for kids between 9 and 11, what else would you expect to see on the silver screen?

We may be a very long way from a time when every kid-centric TV show, Web video and big-budget movie features its stars drinking tap water, snacking on nutrient-rich foods and indulging in only occasional, moderately sized treats. But I believe such a utopian entertainment landscape -- you can go ahead and call it propaganda if you'd like -- could have a deep impact on how children perceive what they should eat.

Processed and fast-food advertisers get most of the blame for enticing children with truly bad-for-you foods such as candy-flavored cereals, stuffed-crust pizzas, packaged lunch kits and fake juices. But rarely do the shows or videos they accompany get scrutinized for modeling poor eating habits.

As it is, young people who grew up watching tween programming crave the whipped-cream topped coffee drinks, brightly colored smoothie sugar bombs and thin aluminum cans of energy drinks they see their TV and movie counterparts regularly downing without ever gaining a pound or getting sick from being overcaffeinated.

If Hollywood put its mind to combating the country's childhood obesity epidemic, kids across the land might someday beg their parents for greens like the orphan Juan Pablo in the comedy "Nacho Libre," who asked Nacho with weary politeness: "How come we can't ever have just, like, a salad?"

Until that day comes, I have a new rejoinder for the inevitable vegetable complaint on chicken-rice-and-broccoli night: "Well, it's good enough for Iron Man."

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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