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Childhood Obesity: How We Got Here and What Can Be Done

Childhood Obesity: How We Got Here and What Can Be Done


The percentage of obese children in America has more than tripled since the 1970s.  Rates of type 2 diabetes, a disease that used to be rare in children, have skyrocketed.  We know we need to reverse this dangerous trend, but childhood obesity is a very complex issue, with the food industry, media, parents, school systems and the children themselves all playing a role.

Forming Lifelong Habits

Children and adolescents are very impressionable.  Not only are their brains still developing on a physiological level, they are also constantly forming their basic views of how the world works based on what they see around them.  Kids spend the vast majority of their time in two places: at home and in school.  These are the places that they pick up cues (good or bad) about how to live life.  If they are bombarded with messages that encourage them to eat and drink unhealthy food items, they are likely to do just that, forming unhealthy habits that often stay with them into adulthood.  These messages can come from both the media and parents.  

How and Why the Food Industry Targets Children

What do Tony the Tiger and basketball star Klay Thompson have in common?  They are both being used to market sugary foods to kids.  People become loyal to products at a young age, and marketers in the food industry know this.  They utilize cartoon characters and real life role models to draw children to their products.  

A new ad campaign features Thompson stating that he is "built with chocolate milk."  Chocolate milk contains a significant amount of sugar, the major culprit behind weight gain.  This is sometimes high fructose corn syrup, an extremely unhealthy version of sugar.  When children see a professional athlete they want to be like promoting a product, they are drawn to it.  Kids don't typically ask questions like "I wonder how much this person is paid to endorse this?"  Young children also associate a product as fun when they see a cartoon mascot such as Tony the Tiger.  When people consume a particular food frequently in their youth, many of them form a subconscious bond with that product and often reach for it in the grocery store as an adult. Companies that sell junk food emphasize advertising to kids because they are grooming them to be customers for life.

No Escaping It: Advertising and Poor Options in Schools

Kids are required by law to attend school, so when the food industry markets in schools, kids are forced to see these messages.  Many schools have contracts with soda and snack food companies, and most schools contain vending machines loaded with unhealthy items.

study by the American Psychological Association also explored direct advertising to students and how much companies are willing to pay to target kids in school.  The study stated, "School advertising also appears under the guise of educational TV.  For instance, Channel One, which is available in 12,000 schools, provides programming consisting of 10 minutes of current-events and 2 minutes of commercials. Advertisers pay $200,000 for advertising time and the opportunity to target 40% of the nation’s teenagers for 30 seconds."  Ads also appear on school buses, book covers, in cafeterias and in bathrooms.  Many cafeterias do not offer healthy options for school lunches, and some even contain chain fast food operations.  Many children are stuck with poor nutritional options in a place they spend a very large portion of their time.  This is a recipe for obese and unhealthy kids. 

Good or Bad, It Starts at Home

Children that are obese often have obese parents.  While they may idolize a certain athlete or pop star, the role models children see the most are their mother and father (or other legal guardian).  When a parent does not eat properly or exercise, it sets a bad example for their children.  When parents choose to purchase unhealthy food in the grocery store and allow their children to sit in front of screens all day rather than be active, they are doing them a disservice in both the short and long term.  While children have some choices to make on their own, parents can have a major influence over what their children eat and how much time they spend doing sedentary activities.  Parents also need to decide what behaviors they want to model for their kids.

What We Can Do

What we are feeding kids both literally and via media messages is why childhood obesity is such an epidemic.  While the behavior of the food industry cannot be directly controlled by parents, they can advocate for positive changes through activism and lobbying their congressperson.  We can all speak up about how the health of our children should be more important than corporate profits.  Parents can also implore their school district to have healthier choices available in cafeterias and to disallow the marketing of junk foods.  

More importantly, parents can make an impact through their own everyday actions.  They can model healthy behaviors by eating and exercising properly.  They can set limits on screen time, encourage their kids to stay active and participate in healthy activities with them.  They can make responsible choices in the grocery store rather than purchasing the products their kids see on TV.  As children get older, they have more opportunities to make their own choices, but if they have developed healthy habits, they are more likely to make the right choices.