More American children are getting chubbier and eating junk food because of the powerful influence of food and beverage advertisements, a study by a distinguished scientific panel has found.
"Food marketing is contributing to placing the children in the nation at a health risk," said Dale Kunkel, a University of Arizona researcher on the Institute of Medicine panel that issued the report Tuesday. Sixteen researchers were on the panel, part of the nonprofit research organization The National Academies.
National health experts and lawmakers are obsessed over the growing number of children who are overweight or obese because the issue is tied to several other health problems, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and is driving up the cost of health care.
The panel said young children are unwitting victims of advertising. Children younger than 8 lack the judgment that would help them make healthier choices. That’s why researchers are so concerned about the food industry’s efforts to promote sugary, salty and fatty products.
"Children are easily influenced and easily manipulated," said Kunkel, a communications professor.
Marketers spend nearly $10 billion a year on advertising to children, and nearly half that is spent on television ads.
The food industry doesn’t want any of the blame for obesity. Processors have responded to criticism by saying that parents should be more involved in getting their kids to eat foods in moderation and encouraging them to exercise.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group, said Tuesday that food companies are "helping parents make the right choices for their families" by improving the nutritional value of foods and shrinking packages to single-serve and kidappropriate sizes.
The food and restaurant industries have several changes under the threat of lawsuits by consumer groups and attorneys. While recent complaints against McDonald’s and other fastfood restaurants have been tossed out of court, some companies are fearful, and have responded by adding more nutritious choices to their menus and product lines.
The panel recommended some solutions to obesity, such as asking companies to focus spending on advertising healthy foods and create industry practice standards that promote good diets for children.
The scientists acknowledged, though, that several factors influence children’s eating habits.
• Companies work with government, public health and consumer groups to set high standards for marketing products to kids.
• Media and entertainment businesses focus on promoting healthful foods.
• Government create marketing programs to support families in encouraging healthy diets.
• Schools teach children about healthy eating and provide healthful foods in lunchrooms.