Friday, November 12, 2010

Can This Be True?

Earlier this week, Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released a report Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth. Faster than you can say "drive-through window," some startling statistics were racing around the Internet and hitting the mainstream media. The most compelling of those statistics was that 84% of parents taking part in this survey reported feeding their kids fast food in the week prior to their interview.

When I read the 84% statistic, my first thought was, "That can't be true." I thought perhaps it was a sampling error - maybe the researchers asked only parents who lived across the street from a McDonald's, or who didn't know how to cook, or who were employed by Burger King. Or maybe there was some other reason the findings were skewed.

So I dug up the report, certain I would spot some methodological weakness. And, I'm sad to say, I was wrong. It's a whopper (sorry) of a report, but a good, thorough one. The methods section (on page 33 for those who care) convinced me that the sample of parents was, in fact, nationally representative. The researchers took pains to include appropriate racial/ethnic diversity and had a reasonable sample size.

The next thing I wanted to know was why. Why would all those parents take their kids to fast food restaurants so frequently? I thought the answers might be cost and convenience, two factors that could influence any parent's decision on where to eat. This time I was partially correct. A useful bar chart (page 118) shows the main reason parents take their kids to the following restaurants:

  • McDonald's and Burger King: the kids like it
  • Wendy's: convenience
  • Subway: nutrition (as an aside, of the 3,039 food combinations evaluated, Subway had the most choices that met the nutritional criteria for kids. Burger King didn't do so badly, either. But scoring well means choosing milk or juice with the meal, substituting fruit for french fries, and eschewing cheese, among other choices.)

This brought up another question: How did the kids know about the restaurants?

And this time, I got the answer correct. Kids know about these restaurants because of amazingly effective advertising and marketing.

Check this out: In 2009, preschoolers saw an average of 2.8 fast-food television commercials each day, kids aged 6-11 saw an average of 3.5, and teens saw 4.7. And that's just TV, not exposure to radio, billboards, online banner ads or pop-ups, bus ads, airport kiosks, and all the other places that fast food is advertised.

So what's a parent to do?

Even though I'm not a big proponent of TV, especially for small kids, I don't think isolating your kids from popular culture is the answer. Sure, sitting around watching the tube is obviously not exercise, and the exposure to the noxious advertising makes the kids want what they don't have  - clothes, food, and toys included. I also don't think we can sit around and wait for government regulations that would limit marketing to kids. After all, it took almost a decade before Congressional pressure and private lawsuits brought about the retirement of Joe Camel despite his obvious intention of selling cigarettes to kids - intentions that were pointed out by a 1991 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that showed that 5 and 6-year-old kids could identify him more readily than Mickey Mouse or Fred Flintstone. This wasn't a benign situation. A companion article noted that during Joe Camel's reign, one-third of all cigarettes sold illegally to underage buyers were Camels - up from less than one percent before Joe Camel.  So even though it was clear (and later proven by internal RJR Nabisco documents) that tobacco was being marketing to kids, lawsuits and government action still took years to be effective.

Therefore, I think the most important thing parents can do to counteract the marketing messages targeting our kids is to teach them, from a very young age, that they are being manipulated. Put your kids in the driver's seat and teach them how to make choices. PBS has a "Question the Commercial" guide that is a good start to opening conversations with young kids about commercials.

And don't forget moderation. There is room in a healthy diet for treats: a donut here, couple of cookies there, an outing to a fast food restaurant every once in a while. But when 8 out of 10 parents willingly tell researchers that they took their kids to fast food restaurants in the past week, we know that kids aren't the only ones who need to learn moderation.

The reality is that we live in a world where marketing is everywhere. We can't keep our kids away from it. So we have to teach our kids - and ourselves - how to live with it.


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