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Highlighting innovative "outside the box" ideas, programs, research and products addressing the prevention and treatment of childhood obesity.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Food Fight Band Wagon and Questionable Spending

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled "Watching Food Ads on TV May Program Kids to Overeat," which was a brief overview of a study conducted by researchers in Liverpool, England. The results of this study should surprise no one, but it is sure to fuel the debate about advertising unhealthy foods to young people.

In a nutshell, the study found that children between the ages of 5 and 11 ate more calories after watching a television advertisement for food, than they did watching advertisements of non-food items. The 5-to-7 year olds ate 14% - 17% more calories and the 9-to-11 year olds ate 84% to 134% more. Additionally, the study found that the older age group was more likely to eat sugary and high-fat foods as part of their increased calorie intake. All this to suggest that kids eating habits are influenced by the advertisements they see on television. Is this a surprise to anyone and did a study really have to be done to prove it?

When are educated professionals going to stop spending money to identify things we already know and/or can do little to change - and instead start putting those funds behind serious early intervention and prevention programs? After last week's AP report on the US Government's spending of $1 billion on ineffective nutrition education programs, there should be warning signals sounding in every corner of every foundation, organization, agency and business that it's time to start putting money behind innovative programs that will empower our young people with the knowledge to make healthy lifestyle decisions. Until that day arrives, I believe efforts to curb childhood obesity and related diseases will continue to be fought on a losing battleground.

Television advertisements ARE NOT making our kids obese! I have two boys who are both members of the tween market (8 and 11 year olds) and I frequently check in on what they are watching on TV. To the best of my knowledge, I have not seen a single food advertisement suggesting that they eat an entire pack of cookies or consume an inordinate amount of any one product - at any one time. The minute I witness such an advertisement, I'll join the bandwagon advocating severe restrictions on junk food advertising to kids - but I highly doubt that will ever occur. It is OK to have a few cookies and potato chips if they are consumed in moderation and as part of a healthy diet. So, don't blame the food companies if kids are eating whole packs of cookies, chips and drinking 2 liters of soda while watching a television program - it's not their fault. Food companies may be easy targets and have big bulls-eyes painted on their corporate logos, but at the end of the day it's not their responsibility to control the nutritional intake of our children. We, as parents, must assume that responsibility despite our hectic lifestyles.

However, food and beverage companies can be part of the solution by taking an active role in helping educators and parents develop meaningful and effective health education programs. There should not be a fight over whether or not food advertising should be banned from children's television, but rather an aggressive partnership between all interested parties to better educate and prepare our young people to live a healthier lifestyle. That's the real issue, but the question is will the groups and organizations on the bandwagon be willing to step outside their comfort zones to partner with the very people they have long painted with a bullseye?

We (LifeStyle Media Group) have an educational program called Get Fit FOCUS that we want to provide to schools for free. It's built on a web 2.0 platform and is designed to provide young people, parents and teachers with a rich interactive healthy lifestyle educational experience. However, it's not inexpensive to develop and we will absolutely need several funding partners (private, public, corporate) to help with its distribution and continued development. But our partners will expect something in exchange for their support. If we put their corporate brand on our educational product or use one of their food products to study nutritional labeling or percentage of daily caloric intake, isn't that in itself advertising?

The fight over food advertising to young people will not end anytime soon, but the spending on programs with questionable value must stop now. I would also respectfully suggest that the bandwagon reevaluate its focus on food company advertising to young people and consider channeling their good intentions into helping get effective health education programs into our schools. Working together, we'll get there a whole lot faster!

In good health,

Phil Christian


DrGwenn said...


You hit the nail on the head. The problem is not advertising or the extra cupcake in school. The problem is our kids are eating too much and moving too little. Like you, I'd like to see the funding for those ad studies go to more practical family and exercise programs. Or, programs that teach kids and parents how to shop.

I have to say, I have two daughters age 9 and 12 and have not seen the impact of advertising that these studies seem to claim.

Dr. Gwenn

PLC said...

Dr. Gwen,

Thanks for stopping by the blog again. I am sooooo with you on every point you make in your comment. Sadly though, the entities that control much of the available funds are rooted in a bureaucratic philosophy that does nothing to foster innovation and outside the box thinking. In fact, my experience has been that the more "inside the box" a program remains, the better your chances of being funded. But the real silliness that just infuriates me and my partners are research programs designed to produce results that support other existing research or accepted and widely known facts (i.e. television advertising has an impact on what kids eat). It's an ineffective bureaucratic cycle. Like you, I'd rather see that money spent on more practical programs that will arm people with the tools and information they need to live a healthy lifestyle. I am convinced that will only happen through private industry and/or innovative non-profits with leadership willing to take the risks - somewhere outside the box.

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