Junk Food Advertising “Feeds” Kids Unhealthy Ideas
By Laura E. Stachel
Your efforts to help your children achieve a healthy diet and lifestyle can be undermined if they watch television regularly. Many parents and health providers are concerned about the health effects of television, particularly in light of the rising rates of childhood obesity. Television is a sedentary activity, provides a venue for unhealthy snacking and, perhaps of most concern, exposes children to a deluge of junk food commercials.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that children under 7 view 14,000 television ads each year, which pales in comparison to the 30,000 ads that kids ages 8 to 12 watch annually. More than half of these commercials promote foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat—foods that have fueled the three-fold increase in childhood obesity over the last 30 years. Obesity in turn contributes to a spectrum of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, cancer and arthritis. Unfortunately, the steady diet of junk food ads being fed to children makes it more difficult for families to adhere to national dietary guidelines advising a diet low in salt, sugar, saturated fats and trans fats.

Children are especially vulnerable to TV ads. Until the age of 5, many kids are unable to distinguish between children’s programming and television commercials. Children under the age of 8 may not understand the persuasive intent and bias of advertisements. Consumer advocates and health organizations—including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association and the Institute of Medicine—have voiced concern about television advertising of unhealthy foods to kids. Some have called for a ban on junk food advertising to children, a step already enacted by several European countries.

In response, many corporations are making an effort to improve television food messages. Several companies have pledged to promote at least 50 percent of their ads to “healthier foods or healthier lifestyles.” These ads encourage children to participate in healthy activities or choose healthier foods. However, other ads continue to promote candy, unhealthy snacks and other junk foods.

While industry officials, health providers and politicians debate the best way to reduce childhood exposure to junk food advertising, here are seven steps that parents can take to encourage a healthier lifestyle:

1. Restrict the amount of television your child watches. The American Academy of Pediatricians suggests that children should watch no more than two hours a day. Many families have decided to raise their children “television-free.”

2. Provide opportunities for your child to participate in sports, extracurricular activities and outdoor play. If your child needs to stay indoors, present activities that engage your child’s hands and creativity, such as art or science projects.

3. Don’t allow your child to have a television in his bedroom.

4. When your child does watch television, select programming without commercials or choose videos.

5. Discourage snacking or mealtimes in front of the TV.

6. Introduce your child to nutritious foods and snacks. Healthy snacks for children include fresh fruits and vegetables rather than chips or sweets.

7. Talk to your child about advertising. Let her know that advertisements are designed to persuade children to want new food products, and that you would like her to grow healthy and strong.

While these measures won’t insulate your child from all advertising, they may reduce the exposure to ads promoting unhealthy foods, and support your efforts to raise a healthy child.