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Should Santa Walk and Eat Carrots, Not Cookies?


Given the epidemic of overweight and obesity among both children and adults, two researchers from Australia have suggested that it may be time for a new image of Santa, one that walks instead of riding a sleigh and who eats carrots instead of cookies. They argue that the current image of Santa promotes an unhealthy lifestyle.

The article, entitled “Santa Claus: a Public Health Pariah?” appears in the British Medical Journal. It notes that a recent study among hospital patients found that there is a “near universal” awareness of Santa. As an icon, Santa has the potential to influence behavior, especially among young children. Among American school children, Santa Claus is the only fictional character more highly recognized than Ronald McDonald.

According to Dr. Nathan Grills, from Monash University in Australia, Santa promotes obesity, drinking and driving, speeding, and an unhealthy lifestyle. He notes that “Santa only needs to affect health by 0.1% to damage millions of lives,” and so he believes it would greatly benefit public health if Santa’s popularity was used to promote a healthy lifestyle.

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Dr. Grills’ research found that the Santa image is sometimes used to promote and sell unhealthy products, and that while Santa is banned from smoking, some Christmas cards still show him with a pipe or cigar. He also noted a potential link between drinking and driving, as it is a tradition to leave Santa Claus brandy, which he is supposed to consume before climbing back into his sleigh.

The new study comes on the heels of another one published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, in which researchers note that about 10 percent of children in England will be obese by 2015 on the basis of recent trends. In the United States, the figure is already higher in some children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity in low-income two- to four-year-olds was 14.6 percent in 2008.

Given the apparent unhealthy lifestyle habits associated with the current image of Santa Claus, Dr. Grills has proposed a new one, in which he is slimmed down and walks on a treadmill. Perhaps the picture should include a plate of carrot sticks instead of cookies and milk.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Grills NJ, Halyday B. British Medical Journal 2009; 339:b5261, doi: 10.1136/bmj.b5261