Toying with our Children’s Health: Happy Meals, Public Health & the Obesity Epidemic

Share this post.

Like a great many other pediatricians and parents, I have increasingly focused my attention in recent years on the topic of children and nutrition. With an ever-increasing number of children now deemed overweight or obese, quite frankly it’s a topic that’s all but impossible to ignore. Poor nutrition and less than ideal dietary habits are posing an ever-expanding threat to our children’s (and in many cases, our own) overall health and well-being – a threat that we simply can not take lightly. As Iowa Senator Tom Harkin put it, “The childhood obesity epidemic isn’t just a catch phrase. It’s a real public health crisis.”

I, for one, don’t take it lightly. As a pediatrician and parent of three, I hope I’m not alone in considering it my parental duty to pay attention to what my children eat – not only at home, but at school and elsewhere. Sure, I strongly believe in teaching them to become independent and make wise choices, but the fact of the matter is they still need nutritional guidance. After all, I am painfully aware that when it comes to making wise food choices, they’re up against some powerful forces.

Michael O’Connor’s January 30th Omaha World Herald article, Toying with kid’s health, brings to the front page one such force. The article addresses a proposed bill (Nebraska’s Legislative bill 126) that would “prevent fast-food outlets and other restaurants from including Barbie and other prizes in kids meals unless the food meets nutrition requirements.” My concern is that people will come to the same, nutritionally dangerous conclusion as the parent whose closing argument in the article was that “fast food is supposed to be fun and entertainment.” Believe it or not, I do understand this argument. I too have found myself pressed for time at the end of a long work day, driving children around from one scheduled activity to another, and faced with pleas for the “fun and entertainment” that fast food promises to deliver. But that doesn’t change what we know about fast food and all of the other outside forces that threaten our children’s nutritional fortitude.

It probably won’t come as news to anyone when I point out that here in the United States, unhealthy foods are marketed to even the youngest of children. But the magnitude is staggering and the extent to which our children are being influenced may surprise you. I hope the following information will help you better recognize just what we are up against.

Food Fact #1: Children are not only witness to literally thousands of television food ads every year, but an overwhelming majority are for foods significantly lacking in nutritional value. With the exception of a recent (and much heralded) carrot campaign, the vast majority of ads (on the order of nearly 98% for 2 to 11 year olds and ~90% for adolescents) tout energy dense, sugary, salty and/or fatty foods.

Food Fact #2: Exposure to food-related television advertisements increases consumption. In a study that looked at the impact of television ads on children’s eating behavior, exposure to food-related ads served as powerful enough cues to increase subsequent food intake in all children studied.

Food Fact #3: Fast-food companies use toys to market their children’s meals. This fact alone isn’t a big surprise, but now remind yourself that fast food meals typically take the cake when it comes to placing at the very top of the nutritionally dangerous list. Next consider that of the reported $520 million that fast-food companies spent on marketing children’s meals in 2006, toys accounted for nearly three-quarters of this spending. In other words, the marketing of unhealthy foods to children isn’t just limited to television ads. Like it or not, it’s in your Happy Meals and comes in the form of a toy.

While I’d like to agree with the parent interviewed in Mr. O’Connor’s article, I can’t. Reality tells me that even with the best of nutritional intentions, parents are up against a lot. While it is absolutely true that parents can and should try to steer clear of fast-food, teach children to opt for healthier options when purchasing children’s meals, limit children’s television time (and with it, exposure to unhealthy food ads), and encourage daily physical activity along with plenty of fruits and vegetables, I’m not sure that parental interventions alone are going to be enough to overcome the childhood obesity epidemic that is looming large.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska