Sometimes I think my daughter must feel like she lives in the Land of NO. So many times when we are visiting friends I find myself constantly saying "No, you can't have anymore candy" and No, you can't have a bag of chips" and "No, you can't have ice cream right before dinner." I don't say this much at home because I don't keep candy, chips, soda or even ice cream in the house--another form of No. A friend recently asked me why I'm so vigilant about her eating habits, and I replied that I feel I have to be in the current environment, where children are constantly bombarded with messages that they should Eat Sugar Now!
Turns out the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a government-funded agency, agrees. In a recent report it found that food marketing to young children is directly linked to rising rates of obesity and overweight (Since the late 1970s, obesity rates have more than doubled among children 6 to 11 years of age and more than tripled among those 12 to 19 years of age). The IOM analyzed the results of 123 published, peer-reviewed studies addressing links between food marketing and children's preferences, requests, consumption, and weight gain and found that the preponderance of evidence supports those links.
As an editorial about the study in the New England Journal of Medicine says, "Marketing strongly influences children's food preferences, requests, and consumption."
The report contains some chilling statistics: At least 30 percent of the calories in the average child's diet derive from sweets, soft drinks, salty snacks, and fast food. Soft drinks account for more than 10 percent of the caloric intake, representing a doubling since 1980. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, even babies consume measurable quantities of soft drinks, and pediatricians say it is not unusual for overweight children to consume 1200 to 2000 calories per day from soft drinks alone.
American children spend nearly $30 billion of their own money annually on such foods, and companies design products to tap this market. Since 1994, U.S. companies have introduced about 600 new children's food products; half of them have been candies or chewing gums, and another fourth are other types of sweets or salty snacks. Only one-fourth are more healthful items, such as baby foods, bread products, and bottled waters. Companies support sales of "kids' foods," with marketing budgets totaling an estimated $10 billion annually.1,3 Kellogg spent $22.2 million just on media advertising to promote 139.8 million dollars' worth of Cheez-It crackers in 2004, but these figures are dwarfed by McDonald's $528.8 million expenditure to support $24.4 billion in sales.
The New England Journal editorial, written by Dr. Marion Nestle, a highly regarded nutritionist at New York University, has this to say: The most insidious purpose of marketing is to persuade children to eat foods made "just for them" — not what adults are eating. Some campaigns aim to convince children that they know more about what they are "supposed to" eat than their parents do. Marketers explicitly attempt to undermine family decisions about food choices by convincing children that they, not adults, should control those choices Indeed, children now routinely report that they, and not their parents, decide what to eat.
We have got to take back the decision making power in our homes. We owe it to our kids, who are looking at a lifetime of ill health and struggles with weight if we don't. Any suggestions out there on how to counteract the marketing messages?