Why Our Kids Are Fat
Let's be clear at the outset. this month's report on marketing food to children from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine does not say that Madison Avenue is making our kids fat, a widespread interpretation. (It states repeatedly that evidence is insufficient to claim "a causal relationship from television advertising to adiposity.") The report's message is actually more interesting and far more constructive in addressing an epidemic of obesity in children that has led to a doubling of type 2 diabetes in the past 10 years. The conclusion we parents should draw? It's time to take our share of the responsibility.
It's no surprise that in marketing food to young children it's the tastier foods and beverages that get most of the ad dollars. What is a surprise, however, is that parents cede substantial control of $30 billion of disposable income to children ages 4 to 12 and so make them juicy targets for food and toy advertisers. That's an awfully big surrender of parenting, no less money. Some countries, including Sweden and Belgium, forbid all advertising to kids on the premise that it's immoral to market to gullible children. This report doesn't address such a First Amendment-charged approach but sticks to science: "Evidence shows food marketing influences kids'preferences. So let's harness the energies and creativity of marketing in a positive way," says J. Michael McGinnis, the public-health physician who led the IOM effort.
On this score, the food industry is becoming an ally. Unlike a few years back when nutritious foods were duds, companies now realize that "healthy foods equal healthy profits," Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers Association told me. Already, most member companies, including Kraft and Campbell Soup, have created kid-size portions and improved nutritional content. Food science continues to make healthy tastier. PepsiCo puts its Smart Spot symbols on healthful products for children and has launched a colorful and playful website to push healthful eating and exercise. The obesity epidemic calls for this kind of leadership and partnership.
But it's still the parents on the front lines. Children come with natural biological preferences for sweet and fat; advertising does not make that happen. But parents can educate their children's palates with repeated exposure to different food types over time. Certain cultures do this routinely, teaching little ones to prefer strong and spicy, for example. Our laissez-faire attitudes may be more American but turn out to be hazardous. If we parents can teach our youngest to wear safety belts, we can work on their taste in food. It's important to start early, since preferences are pretty much fixed by the age of 4.
Wise choices. We have to be smart here. Kids are great manipulators, and parents are much too easily charmed or worn down. Food fights are not fun, and handling them unwisely risks sparking an even fiercer rebellion--or an eating disorder down the road. There's no simple answer. But kids will get a balanced diet if their parents manage what's put in the shopping cart, on the kitchen table, and in the lunchbox. Parents can, and should, choose whole-grain breads; and fruits, berries, and melons as the sweet desserts. And they can read food labels and put back the cookies loaded with trans fat. The family meal at home promotes better nutrition by putting Mom and Dad in control of the menu and demonstrating their values about food. The meal that should never be skipped, by the way, is breakfast, an easy one to pack with dairy, fruits, and whole grain: Research has shown that kids with the breakfast habit are less likely to be fat. And there is nothing wrong with an occasional indulgence; making that gooey chocolate cake and ice cream sundae forbidden fruit only adds to their appeal.
Another takeaway from the IOM report is the need to teach our kids to be media savvy. Children under 8 don't understand the persuasive intent of marketing, and most under 4 don't even know the difference between a program and its ads. Parents have to build their children's mental immunity: Kids can't believe everything they hear, even from SpongeBob SquarePants and Scooby-Doo. Teens are more resistant to food advertising messages--and, unfortunately, also to those of their parents. So toddlerhood is the time to start developing the good food habit. Even then, success will take lots of parental starch.
This story appears in the December 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.