.The cost of childhood obesity
Big food and drink companies are under fire from health advocates and parents
for bombarding children with junk food advertising and sophisticated marketing techniques.
It's not just TV advertising influencing children anymore - they can be reached in a multitude of ways, through new and constantly evolving media platforms.
Experts are calling for governments to step in and impose restrictions on junk food to help curb childhood obesity, but so far authorities have adopted a wait-and-see strategy, allowing the food and beverage industries to experiment with self-regulation. At this point, however, there is little evidence that self-regulation has had an impact on the amount of advertising for unhealthy foods to which children are exposed.
In the absence of government restrictions, CHOICE investigates strategies to help parents and communities wind back junk food intake and promote more nutritious choices.
What's the problem?
Around the globe, governments and communities are grappling with the social, financial and health costs of overweight and obese populations. There are many reasons for this weight gain – sedentary lifestyles, too much screen time and not enough exercise are a few. One of the biggest factors, of course, is food. Portion sizes have increased dramatically; people cook less and eat more takeaway.
For children, junk foods and drinks are cheaper and more readily available in public spaces and schools than healthy snack foods.
The food and beverage industry’s argument around junk foods is that parents should educate their kids about eating unhealthy food in moderation as part of a balanced diet and active lifestyle.
So why can't we help kids just say no?
The reason moderation is so hard, say health advocates, is that those same companies pushing moderation are undermining parents at every step by spending vast amounts on advertising, and marketing unhealthy foods and drinks to influence children’s preferences.
Research has also shown advertising plays an important role in promoting unhealthy eating habits, influencing the brands children choose and encouraging them to like energy-dense salty, sugary or fatty foods.
Children are becoming overweight earlier in life, and obesity has been associated with an the increased number of children and adolescents diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Obese children are also more likely to become obese adults.
"The battleground between the food industry and parents is certainly not a level playing field," says associate professor Teresa Davis from the University of Sydney Business School. "Advertising to kids is all-pervasive - [it's] a multi-billion dollar industry with sophisticated, constantly evolving psychological techniques. We expect individual parents to be smarter than clever market researchers and branding experts, but not all parents possess the nutritional knowledge to counteract misleading marketing messages."
Reversing kids' preferences from unhealthy to healthy foods is hard, she says, when kids are swamped with messages about "treat" foods and there is almost no promotion of healthy food.