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Yale Childhood Obesity Study Explained by Dr. Ayala

November 15, 2010

Television lies

When a big load of research comes to fruition and becomes a published study, there is nothing finer than an articulate professional who can break it down for you. Dr. Ayala Laufer-Cahana is splendid at doing just that. The controversial new report is from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, located at Yale University. A PDF file of the entire 208-page report, “Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth,” is available online.

Dr. Ayala’s take on it, at Open Salon, is titled, “Better fast food? Less push to kids? Report finds neither,” and that about sums it up. The spotlight is focused on fast food — but let’s cut to the chase. What do these experts want us to do? What is the call to action that we, as responsible citizens, are urged to heed? Dr. Ayala says,

The report concludes with recommendations: It calls for binding standards for child-targeted marketing, it urges companies to reformulate menu items, and above all it advocates emphasizing the healthier, lower calorie options and making them the default choice for kids’ meals.

Why on earth would anybody want to harass the poor fast-food corporations by setting restrictions on their advertising? Well, for starters, the feeling is widespread that too much marketing targets children. Last year alone, the fast-food giants spent over four billion dollars on marketing, a large portion of it aimed at kids. The researchers looked at a time period from 2003 to 2009. Over those years, the report says,

[…] Exposure to fast food ads on TV increased by 21% for preschoolers, 34% for children, and 39% for teens (12-17)… Marketing goes far beyond television ads. The companies use websites, banner ads, and social and mobile media to reach young people.

Does it work? You bet it does. Dr. Ayala passes on to us the information that, on any given day, a third of the children and teenagers in America eat fast food. Each one of those fast-food meals contains up to 1,100 calories, and a big percentage of that is fat and sugar. And salt, don’t forget the salt, more of it than anybody really needs. Every story needs one big outrageous-sounding number, and here it is. The Yale report says:

Only 12 of 3,039 possible kids’ meal combinations meet nutrition criteria for preschoolers. Only 15 meet nutrition criteria for older children.

That’s amazing. Also amazing is the tight connection between television and childhood obesity. Dr. Pretlow posed the question, “Does watching TV cause you to gain weight?” in a Weigh2Rock poll. An impressive 45% of the respondents said, “Yes, I eat while watching TV.” Another 36% said, “Yes, keeps me from exercising,” and only 18% said, “No, it doesn’t make me gain.”

But let’s get back to the marketing. In a way, a person can see how corporations are in a bind. Ever since the first stirrings of the civil rights movement, the portrayal of minority groups on television has been problematic. It was perfectly reasonable for Hispanics and African Americans to say, in effect, “If you want us to buy your product, you need to hire Hispanics and African Americans to be in your TV commercials.”

Now, having made the effort to tailor the marketing to the audience, the poor corporations are being criticized for “targeting vulnerable groups.” Fortunately, there is a way to avoid this whole problem. Just quit targeting anybody. No more advertising, of anything, to kids. There will only be long-winded pitches aimed at adults, filmed in black-and-white.

Well, think about it. Wasn’t it better for a kid in the old days, when TV ads were utterly boring? When the commercials started, you would take the opportunity to get up, move around, go and do something else for a while, until the program came back on. You might even get involved in a physical activity or a creative pursuit, and forget to go back to the television.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Better fast food? Less push to kids? Report finds neither,”  OpenSalon.com, 11/08/10
Source: “Does Watching TV Cause You to Gain Weight?,” Weigh2Rock.com
Image by Gene Hunt, used under its Creative Commons license.

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