TV commercials called fattening

Health group assails ads urging kids to eat junk food

Family Matters

March 07, 2004|By Elizabeth Lee | Elizabeth Lee,Cox News Service

Grandma was right, after all.

Turning off the television and eating a home-cooked meal may be among the best ways to keep kids from packing on the pounds, according to two recent studies.

It's no surprise that children who watch a lot of TV are more likely to be overweight than those who don't. But that may not be because they're glued to the tube instead of playing soccer.

A barrage of commercials for junk food is most likely the cause, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit group that studies health-care issues. Kids see 40,000 ads a year, double what they watched a generation ago. Most are for cereals, candy and fast food.

An American Psychological Association report reached a similar conclusion, and called for restricting ads aimed at children younger than 9. At that age, children believe all ad messages are true, the APA report concludes.

"Ten billion dollars in food industry advertising aimed at kids is a powerful counterweight to parents trying to get their kids to eat a balanced diet," said Vicky Rideout, a Kaiser vice president.

A study of kids' menus at family restaurants points to other stumbling blocks in keeping children trim. Most of the offerings are high in calories and fat, even when adult menus offer healthier choices, according to the study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

Every kids' menu listed fried chicken fingers or nuggets, 85 percent sold burgers and at more than half the restaurants, french fries were the only side dish. A few chains also offer lighter food. They include Cracker Barrel and Red Lobster, which recently added grilled seafood and chicken and steamed vegetables to its children's menus.

Ten percent of preschoolers and 15 percent of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The obesity rate for adolescents has tripled since 1980, the CDC said. More kids are developing diabetes and other obesity-related health problems, from high blood pressure to depression.

After analyzing dozens of studies on kids' media use, Kaiser found limited evidence that watching TV discourages children from being active. Kids who don't watch TV are likely to substitute another passive activity, such as reading or talking on the telephone, Rideout said. The report did not examine Internet advertising because there's little research available on its effects.

A lawyer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association disagreed with calls to restrict commercials aimed at children.

"Advertising is not going to take advantage of kids of younger ages," said Bill MacLeod, "and there are numerous checks and balances in place to make sure that doesn't happen."

Federal guidelines limit the number of ads that can run during TV programs aimed at children under 12, and call for clear shifts between programs and commercials.

TV watching, the Kaiser report said, is just one factor in the obesity epidemic. It suggested solutions ranging from promoting healthy eating habits in kids' programming and public service ads, to regulating food ads targeted at children.

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