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My kids couldn’t stop begging for Danimals Crush Cups, the yogurt advertised by the tween twins who play Dylan and Cody on Disney’s The Suite Life. And while my kids (ages 5, 8, 10 and 13) aren’t overweight, their nonstop whining after seeing the ad is a perfect example of what the American of Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is terming a "perfect storm for childhood obesity -- media, advertising and inactivity" in a policy statement released today.
According to the AAP, time spent zoning out in front of the television has a lot to do with our kids’ ballooning bellies. Kids today spend more time on the couch than in generations past, and it's affecting their eating and sleep habits, too. Watching at night can interfere with sleep, which may lead to weight gain. And shows today, especially those targeted at kids, are packed with ads for unhealthy foods.
A study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University found that today’s preschoolers see an average of three fast food commercials per day – 21% more than back in 2003. Older kids see even more ads: an average of three-and-a-half ads per day for kids ages 6 to 11 and five per day for teens. And that’s just fast food commercials. Add in even the somewhat-healthy foods (like the sugary Danimals) advertised to our kids, and you can begin to understand why the AAP is concerned.
I caved and bought the kids the Crush Cups and the Scooby Doo Gogurts, too -- it's still yogurt, after all -- but I know it’s not a coincidence that my kids prefer these brands with their cheery packaging to more boring grown-up options. Research recently published in Pediatrics and Archive of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that kids are more likely to prefer the taste of products packaged with their favorite cartoon characters.
Since food advertising isn’t going away anytime soon (though the AAP supports a ban on junk food advertising), the policy recommends that parents:
Limit screen time. No more than two hours of non-educational screen time per day. (The upside: a lot of educational kids’ programming is commercial-free.)
Talk about advertising. Help your kids see behind the curtain. Point out the frequent use of cartoon characters in commercials aimed at kids. You can even try some blind taste tests at home. Does the stuff with the cartoon characters really taste any better than the regular brand?
Model healthy eating habits. Keep plenty of fresh, healthy foods (fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains, lean meats) in the house and let your kids see you eating them. If you subsist on Cheetos and Diet Coke, it’s pretty unlikely that your kids will eat a well-balanced diet.
Then turn off the TV and head outside to play with your kids -- your whole family will end up healthier.