Op Ed
December 16 , 2005

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Media threatens homeland health
by Melinda Hemmelgarn

The Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) recent report “Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?” revealed what parents instinctively know: advertising works. In fact, humor journalist Erma Bombeck explained the report’s findings in one sentence years ago: "In general, my children refuse to eat anything that hasn't danced on television."

Unfortunately, the majority of those "dancing" foods and beverages are loaded with corn sweeteners, fat and sodium, and lack critical nutrients children need for optimal growth and development.

According to IOM report committee member and University of Minnesota nutritionist, Mary Story, only two percent of American youth meet national dietary recommendations. Missing are those nutrients found in whole grains, deep yellow and dark green leafy vegetables.

The report stopped short of saying food ads cause obesity; however, it did say there was “strong evidence that television advertising influences food and beverage preferences and purchase requests of children ages 2 through 11 years old….”

Committee Chair, J. Michael McGinnis said: “Current food and beverage marketing practices put kids’ long-term health at risk. If America's children and youth are to develop eating habits that help them avoid early onset of diet-related chronic diseases, they have to reduce their intake of high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks, fast foods and sweetened drinks, which make up a high proportion of the products marketed to kids.“

Even though the IOM report focused largely on the effects of TV advertising, the committee recognized the rapid expansion of marketing messages to mobile phones, the Internet and product placement in video games.

To answer the IOM’s question, food marketing is both threat and opportunity. While current food marketing is putting our kids’ health at risk, we have an opportunity to turn the tides. For one, Congress must step in and set limits on junk food marketing to kids. That way, all businesses and schools play on a level field, and all kids win.

Two, parents can take steps to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy marketing messages at home. Here’s how:

1. Resist the temptation to buy your child a personal TV or DVD player for their bedroom. Kids with their own TV enjoy less family interaction, and spend more time alone with marketers.

2. Set limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours per day of non-academic screen time — that includes video games, movies and TV. Children may complain at first, but give them a few choices depending on their age — play outside, go to the library, draw, dress up, read, write a story, learn to cook or sew, do some chores, etc. — then watch their creativity blossom. Parents are not responsible for providing entertainment 24/7; it is perfectly fine for children to experience boredom.

3. Watch shows and movies together so you can talk about content, characters and ads. Ask children to point out branded products placed within programs and movies.

4. Avoid branded toys, including candy-counting books and fast food play sets. Choose gifts that promote physical activity, creativity and learning instead, such as: puzzles, blocks and number and word games.

5. Check out the Toy Action Guide developed by Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment. Go to: www.truceteachers.org.

The Center for a New American Dream offers tips for parenting in a commercial culture; www.newdream.org. To read the IOM report, visit: http://national-academies.org.

Melinda Hemmelgarn is a registered dietitian, Food and Society Policy Fellow, and “Food Sleuth” columnist. She lives in Columbia, MO. She can be contacted at foodsleuth@mchsi.com.


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