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Childhood obesity fueled by fast food TV ads

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

Children and youth are being sabotaged by television, not only by spending sedentary time in front of it, but by the barrage of advertising which promotes unhealthy foods and unhealthy eating habits. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement today summarizing compelling longitudinal studies which demonstrate a direct link between screen time and obesity. Many of the studies cited suggest that poor nutritional habits set in motion in youngsters have a direct impact on their future health as adults.

American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media recommends a ban on advertisements for junk food and fast food during kids’ programming, as well as advertisements targeted to children via cellphone and other media. It also recommends that pediatricians ask parents two questions: how much time does their child spend in front of TV, and if there is a TV in the child’s bedroom. These two factors are highly predictive of obesity and metabolic disturbances that can lead to Type 2 diabetes.

A remarkable 30-year study in the United Kingdom, for example, found that a higher mean of daily hours of TV viewed on weekends predicted a higher BM (Body Mass Index)I at the age of 30. For each additional hour of TV watched on weekends at age 5, the risk of adult obesity increased by 7%. And a group of researchers in New Zealand demonstrated that average weeknight TV viewing was strongly predictive of adult BMI. Furthermore, a television or computer screen in a child’s bedroom appears to exacerbate the problem, a worrisome trend when researchers also found that 40% of youngsters between the ages of 1 and 5 have a TV set in their bedroom. These are preschool-age children – the most formative age bracket for life-long self-care habits.

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The report addresses the mechanisms involved in TV viewing and eating habits, as well as the disturbances in metabolism that result. For one thing, screen time displaces more active activities. Children are naturally active, and toddlers and preschoolers especially so. Yet the TV screen has a hypnotic effect on even an 18-month-old. The child who could not sit still for one minute is suddenly transformed into a motionless being with eyes glued intently on to the moving images of television. Those who watch more TV also tend to snack more, displacing the rhythms of regular meal times, and the snacks they do consume tends to be high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sugar. They have been demonstrated to drink more soda and eat less fruits and veggies. While some researchers claim that eating while watching TV suppresses satiety cues (perhaps caused by not being conscious of the act of eating itself), others say that the advertising the kids are exposed to leads them to choose the very foods that have the highest addictive potential: sugar, salt and fat.

Advertisers focus on these convenience foods because, frankly, it’s huge business. Americans spend $110 billion on fast food annually – more than on education, computers and cars. And it is only processed, pre-packaged food that can yield profits. Such food can be patented and made to look glamorous through marketing campaigns. How far can carrot sticks and apple slices go in this respect? Also, processed, taste-enhanced foods such as chips, soda and cookies are far more addictive than food in its natural form. It’s rare to eat a bag-full of apple slices, but it’s very hard to put away an unfinished bag of zesty-flavored chips.

On any given day, 30% of kids are eating junk food and consuming a surplus of 187 calories. This adds up to a weight increase of 6 lbs. a year. Contrary to popular opinion, weight gain and metabolic disturbances occur in small increments such as these. Six lbs. a year over a span of ten years will result in a twelve-year-old who is 60 pounds overweight – and that’s even before he or she hits adolescence.

Culturally, we are not a nation committed to the health of our children. Parents eating out at restaurants are frequently confronted with abysmal kids’ menus featuring the processed, high-fat, high-sugar foods that are best avoided. More than 80% of all advertising during children’s programming is for fast food or snacks. In 2009 the fast-food industry spent $4.2 billion on advertising alone. These statistics show the uphill battle parents and children face every day in trying to maintain healthy and active lifestyles.

The AAP also recommends that government take on an active role in controlling the influence of media by establishing rules and limits on the amount of advertising children are exposed to – rules and limits already in place in some European nations. The fast food, marketing and advertising industries are sure to fight such initiatives. The report does not make mention of the fact that parents and caregivers often voluntarily provide television and fast food for their children. It would be very useful to study the factors that lead parents to make these choices for their children in the first place.