I’ve heard stories about how much parents hate taking their kids through the cereal aisle at the grocery store. Apparently, it is the aisle parents most dread, with the brightly colored boxes of sugary cereal displayed at children’s eye level with enticing cartoon characters and promises of kid-friendly prizes you can send away for. Sugary breakfast cereals are just one of the many junk-food products targeted at kids, and it can make navigating television, the grocery store, and pretty much everywhere else in the world really difficult if your goal for your children is good health.
The State of Kids’ Health
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, between 16 and 33 percent of children and adolescents are obese! This number has grown substantially in the course of a single generation. When I went to school there was one “big” kid but now the classrooms are full of them. Obesity in children is a strong indicator of obesity in adulthood, and health concerns can develop early including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Increased risk of heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
- Increased risk of cancer
- Sleep disorders
Why Are More Kids Obese?
While no single cause is the smoking gun for children with obesity, correlations exist that suggest many factors contribute including:
- Families are likely to eat out 4-5 times per week, mostly at fast food and casual dining restaurants
- Foods marketed to children like breakfast sugar and snacks are laden with high-fructose corn syrup, starch, empty calories, fat, salt, and chemicals.
- Many school districts offer school lunches that are completely unhealthy.
- Children drink soda and juice, which are full of sugar, HFCS, and other chemicals.
- Many overworked, overscheduled parents turn to cheap, fast, overly-processed convenience foods to feed their families.
- Marketing claims create a false sense of what is healthy.
- Children are increasingly inactive.
- Chemicals in foods can cause all kind of endocrine, metabolic, and health disorders that contribute to obesity.
Targeting Your Kids
Many companies target your kids, often in sneaky ways. That’s because your kids are their future customers, and if they can build brand loyalty now, they’ll have a customer for life. Likewise, children have what’s called the “pester” factor. Many just continue to pester their parents to purchase junk items until the parents, unable to take it any longer, just give in. Here’s how junk companies are targeting your children.
- Websites offer free downloads and games that make junk foods seem exciting and healthy.
- Corporate sponsors (including food companies) have worked their way into the schools, creating sponsored “educational” handouts, placing snack and soda machines in school districts, and even providing school lunches. They also donate technology in classrooms in return for prominent placement or advertising.
- If you ever watch children’s programming, you’ll find ads for all kinds of junk food including fast food restaurants, cereals, and other snack foods that make eating such foods look cool. You’ll even find product placement in children’s programs.
- Product placement in the grocery store, which has become an obstacle course for many parents, is set with kid-targeted foods at children’s eye level. Believe me, kids notice.
- Internet advertising is so sophisticated that it’s easy to individualize ads to the computer-user. If that’s your kids, you can bet they’re getting a lot of information about junk foods.
- Casual dining and fast food restaurants offer children’s clubs, playgrounds, arcades, and other incentives to get kids in the door.
Protecting Your Children
Many consumer groups are seeking to protect children from invasive advertising. It’s worked in the past. Tobacco companies used to regularly market to children with characters like Joe Camel until it was outlawed, and it could work in the junk food industry, as well. If you’d like to participate in the effort, you can sign the Prevention Institute’s “We’re Not Buying It” petition to President Obama. While you’re waiting for legislation to help, there are things you as a parent can do.
- Offer your kids healthy fruits and vegetables.
- Be aware of the products that appear healthy but are unhealthy to kids and offer alternatives.
- Contact your school about school lunches and corporate marketing in the schools.
- Talk with your children about corporate marketing claims and how they can damage their health.
- Limit television viewing, and watch with your kids. Discuss any commercials they see.
- Supervise your children’s Internet use and prohibit them from going on corporately sponsored websites.
- Talk to your children about healthy eating and explain what constitutes healthy foods. Teach them which foods will make them feel good and keep from getting sick.
- Be an example to your kids, making healthy choices. This is vital!!
- Eat dinner together as a family, and offer healthy, homemade foods instead of dining out. If time is an issue, you can prepare foods on the weekends and freeze them – or toss together a healthy salad for dinner.
- Don’t give in to your child’s marketing-triggered demands and don’t use unhealthy snacks as a reward.
- Shop at farmer’s markets and natural food stores. If you go to the grocery store, shop around the edges where the healthiest foods are and avoid the aisles.
Marketing companies exert a strong influence but as a parent, you can be an even stronger force in your child’s life. While it may be a little more of an effort, the payoff is that your children will be healthier for it, and ultimately I believe, happier. Excellent health contributes to children being able to pursue their goals and dreams, unhindered.