We are nearly four months out from Michelle Obama’s speech about marketing to kids, a major issue in these times. There are many things to say about the rising trend of growing (and thickening) Americans – it is certainly a subject that has cast a wide shadow over the discussion of the state of nutrition in the United States. Study after study, we are more confused about what is right and what to tell our kids. And here it is: we’ve all heard the stats about childhood obesity; that childhood obesity has more than doubled in kids and has tripled in adolescents in the last 30 years. Those are pretty staggering, and what is astonishing is the relation advertising has with the success of these weighty and wealthy food companies to convince kids to keep shoving detrimental food into their mouths. The scariest part is wondering whether we have control over these new trends.
With parents having less time to spend on kids’ diet preferences (and on their own) as well as children having much more control over a family’s expenditures on food-related items – an estimated $485 billion in 1999 – the dynamic has changed. Children no longer get most of their messages from their parents about what they should eat like the advertising companies suggest they should – they’re getting social cues from friends, menu choices from school lunch programs, and nudges from advertisement. Large food companies get a lot of time with them in the form of t.v. ads, product placement, branded merchandise, and online games. Whereas parents will spend an average of 21 hours split between mom and dad caring for their kids (which is on the rise), kids aged 8-17 watch an average of 1 hour and 7 minutes per week of purely food advertisement.
While this statistic alone may not haunt you, the advertising content and hours of media consumed by children might. Of the food advertising seen on television, 20% promote a website and kids, on average, spend more than 53 hours per week using entertainment media. All of the major brands offer online games – played without having to sign up or on and without requiring parental consent. Online media, as well as all other forms of advertisement, inform what kids want; what they think is cool, how they perceive taste (even carrots packaged in McDonald’s packaging), as well as appealing to their refined sugar-loving taste buds – all of which highly influence the family’s dietary dollars. And the truth is that kids do ask for well-branded products and parents start with an uphill battle from the time that child is exposed to our branded world.
And though Mrs. Obama says that obesity rates among low-income preschoolers have dropped in 19 states and territories across the country and that childhood obesity rates are falling in major cities (from 2008 to 2011), it isn’t the weight in particular I’m worried about. Weight is a symptom of the issue at hand but the health effects of the lifestyles that cause the weight gain are indeed something to discuss. Issues like: 5-17 year olds with risk factors for heart disease, adolescents with a likelihood to have prediabetes, kids and adolescents alike who suffer greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and an increased risk in the long-term for many types of cancer (breast, colon, edometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix, prostate, multiple myeloma and Hodgkin’s lyphoma). These health issues correlate with kids not meeting their daily nutritional requirements, even though they are going over their daily recommended caloric intake as a result of an overabundance of unhealthy food in the United States.
It’s the chronic disease-suited lifestyle that eating poorly every day will do for you. And it’s branding and advertising that contribute to our nation’s consumption of foods that aren’t actually “heart healthy” or “Diabetes friendly.” Chronic diseases that used to only plague adults are making their mark on our nation’s kids.
My question is: How do we disseminate empowering nutritional information? How do we get science to agree on what we should do in such a way to inform policy? With our tastebuds tuned to the flavor of High Fructose Corn Syrup or sugar in everything… How long will it be until the American Public can appreciate healthful food, or will it ever?