Will post a follow-up commentary tommorrow, but feel free to tell me what you think of my ideas in this peice.
I had a hard time settling down on one topic this past week and wrote this sort of last-minute. It was inspired by the recent report released in Pediatrics that girls are entering puberty earlier and one major cause is obesity.
So this is it:
Why Are Our Kids So Fat?
Yet another study has been released linking childhood obesity to major health problems. This time, it’s early puberty in girls. It’s also been linked to Type 2 Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, asthma, sleep problems and any number of psychological and emotional disorders.
Even though obesity in children is growing at an alarming rate, these kids are still singled out by their peers and even their own family as the victims of relentless bullying. Poor self-esteem and depression are common among overweight kids which leads into vicious cycles of emotional eating.
What can be done? We all know that weight is a result of lifestyle and diet. But it’s also influenced by genetics. I thank my lucky stars every day that my children seem to have inherited my husband’s metabolism instead of my own.
I was an overweight, perhaps even obese, child myself. And I’m still overweight to this day. Once I hit puberty the pounds packed on at what seemed to be exponential rates.
I don’t think my parents did anything wrong. Yes, we had a certain amount of unhealthy food but we weren’t inundated with junk food the way children today seem to be. I was always active and played outside every day. Dance, soccer, basketball, rugby, plus hiking, canoeing and general messing about in the woods kept me busy and active.
This was before the advent of internet, gaming, and social media so we can’t blame screen time.
I was definitely an emotional eater, though. After a bad day of teasing at school I would console myself with an after-school snack made from peanut butter, chocolate chips, honey and oats. Or a milkshake. Or a microwave pizza.
My parents didn’t keep a lot of junk food in the house, but I knew how to make comfort foods from everyday ingredients.
Which is why I sometimes cringe when I hear people respond to advertising aimed at children by saying “well, parents decide what to buy, not children.”
That’s certainly true. And as a parent myself, whose children have hardly been exposed to any advertising, I know how much they can demand what they want. I also know how hard it is to decide what is best.
Just last week I spent ten minutes in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. I was trying to find the best healthy value for my money. I know how to read a nutritional label; I know how much sugar and sodium are acceptable and how much protein and fiber are desirable. I’m the woman that reads the labels on everything before it goes in the cart.
Yet, even I was confused by the differing labels. I finally found a cereal that we could afford that the children would like and was still under 8 grams of sugar per serving. Then I realized that their “serving” was a half cup. Meanwhile I had just rejected a cereal with 9 grams of sugar per serving, but upon further inspection, the serving size was one full cup.
Food labeling can be incredibly tricky and confusing - even when you come to it with an understanding of nutrition and with high literacy skills. But many parents don’t have that. They read “made with whole grains” and “a source of seven essential nutrients” and feel that they are making a good choice. Advertisers never write “more than 50% of your RDI of sodium” or “enough sugar to help your children climb the walls” on the outside of their boxes.
Advertising is deceptive and even parents can fall for murky claims. Even well educated, knowledgeable, health conscious parents can buy a box of multigrain cheerios thinking they’re a good choice.
But advertising isn’t just deceptive in the way it words things. It’s deceptive in the ideas it relates.
Advertising aimed at children does more than attempt to sell them a product. Advertisers and manufacturers know that childhood is the prime time to create loyal consumers.
Ads aimed at children are especially notorious for being too fanciful. Young children, especially preschoolers who are still struggling with representations of reality, will believe that the plastic toy horse with wings can really fly if you show it flying.
They will also believe that pizza can make them happy if you show a lot of happy children eating it.
Advertisers want to create brand loyalty in children, which they do through the use of characters such as Dora, Iron Man, and the Disney Princesses. They want to enmesh children in their commercial culture which they do through sponsoring children’s events and even schools and through relentless advertising.
But they also want to sell ideas: more is good, buying is best, keep up with the latest, and this can make you happy.
Which brings us back to the 12 year old me. No access to junk food in the house, but I’ve already been sold the idea that food, and especially sugary, fatty food can make me happy. So I make my own.
Even when parents make the decision not to buy what their children have asked for, the children have already been sold the idea that happiness comes in bottles and purchasing power.
So, the next time someone calls for advertising reform, instead of jumping to the conclusion that advertising is about a single product and a parent’s choices, think about what the advertisers are really trying to sell.
In my opinion, advertising to children at all should be illegal. I think everyone needs to admit that it at least needs to be regulated more.