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Do TV Food Commercials Promote Childhood Obesity?


Picture this: children across America are sitting in front of the TV watching food commercials to the tune of more than five per hour. More than 70 percent of those commercials are for fast food, sugary foods, and other high-calorie items, all of which can contribute to childhood obesity.

Childhood overweight and obesity is a national problem. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 17 percent of children are overweight, and overweight children often become overweight adults, and an increased risk for diabetes, stroke, heart disease, arthritis, and certain cancers, among other ailments and diseases. Part of the problem may be that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American society has become “obesogenic,” characterized by situations and environments that promote increased consumption of food, unhealthful foods, and a sedentary lifestyle.

Researchers at the University of California-Davis evaluated the types of food commercials seen by children who watch English- and Spanish-language TV programs during high viewing times for children: Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons. Recordings were made of programs on twelve networks, including children’s cable channels, networks that appeal to older youths, mainstream English-language channels, and the two highest rated Spanish language channels.

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A total of 5,724 commercials were recorded, of which 1,162 were food-related. Children were exposed to an average of 5.2 food commercials per hour, and more than 70 percent of the food commercials were for unhealthful foods (foods with high sugar and/or high fat content), which contribute to childhood obesity. Thirty-four percent of the advertisements were for fast-food restaurants and convenience foods.

The highest percentage of food-related commercials appeared on children’s networks, where the advertisements were mostly for sugary cereals and sweets, high-fat foods, fast-food restaurant fare, and snacks. Compared with television for a general audience, children’s networks exposed its viewers to 76 percent more food commercials per hours than did the other networks. Young people who watch TV on a children’s network during Saturday morning from 7 to 10 AM see approximately one food commercial every eight minutes.

Older children continue to be exposed to unhealthful food commercials. The researchers viewed programming such as the music videos offered by BET and MTV and found that 80 percent of the MTV food commercials were for fast food restaurants, sugary beverages, and sweets.

The authors of the study, which was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, noted that “Study after study has documented the adverse health effects of food advertising targeting children and adolescents.” They went on to say that “School- and family-based programs that have attempted to reduce children’s media use have shown promise.” Yet because children are exposed to food commercials via other media, especially the Internet, the authors propose the introduction of “nutrition-focused media literary interventions” to help young people understand the economic motivations of food advertisers and the methods the industry uses to increase desire for their products. These efforts, and others, may help stem the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.

Bell RA et al. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 2009 Nov-Dec; 41(6): 406-13
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Center for Health Statistics