September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month and as such there has been a lot of press lately about what to do about the obesity epidemic. In fact I recently saw an ad for the documentary, Fed Up, which alleges the obesity epidemic all boils down to the consumption of sugar and provides insight on the role that the food industry and our own government plays in the epidemic. I haven’t seen the documentary yet, but as a social and behavioral scientist, it got me thinking about the synergy between policy intervention and personal efforts to lose weight, and the importance of recognizing the limits of individual agency, especially for children.
While obesity rates in the United States have soared among all age groups in the past four decades, the rise in obesity rates has affected our youth in alarming fashion. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Childhood obesity is linked to Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, breathing problems, joint problems, fatty liver disease, and a host of other health concerns. Moreover, studies have shown that as obese children age they are more likely to be depressed, to miss school or work, to feel suicidal, to earn less, and to find it difficult to marry.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that the rate of increase in obesity in the US seems to be slowing. The bad news is that no one knows exactly why. Obesity is caused by a jumble of circumstances and effects such as the consequence of living with our cultural norms, our history of agricultural production and subsidies, our long-standing socioeconomic inequalities, and massive technological and societal changes. Over the years there has been an increase in portion sizes, food-company taste-engineering, and we’ve been inundated with effective food marketing. The people most vulnerable to obesity do not have access to healthy food, to role models, to solid health-care and community infrastructures, to accurate information, to effective treatments, and even to the time necessary to change their relationship with food. And if all this is true for adults, it is even truer for children, who rely on adults and for whose choices are made for them.
Of course individual behavior can’t be dismissed, but according to many anti-obesity activists what we really need to be concentrating on is reducing/ altering food marketing to children. Evidence suggests that advertising feeds obesity, triggering an almost automatic mindless response. For instance in an experiment conducted by a couple of psychologists at Yale University one group of children saw food commercials between cartoons while the other group viewed the cartoon with commercials, but not for food products. Both groups were given a snack to eat while watching. The children who saw the food ads ate nearly 50% more of the snack they were offered. It didn’t seem to matter what the advertised food actually was. A worrisome finding indeed, but what if we could encourage kids to eat healthy snacks? What if we employed the same means that influence poor choices and use them to promote positive choices? The now classic 2005 Sesame Street Workshop of “Elmo/Broccoli” study confirmed a strong influence of popular licensed characters on preschoolers' food preferences. When preschoolers were given a choice between eating broccoli or a Hershey's chocolate bar, 78% chose the chocolate bar, while only 22% chose broccoli. However, the study found that when an Elmo sticker was put on the broccoli and an unknown character was put on the chocolate bar, half of the children chose the chocolate bar, while the other half chose the broccoli. Clearly, such creative tactics have considerable potential in reaching consumers at a younger age to help in the development of good lifetime eating habits. But it’s also interesting to note, that 22% of the children in this study actually chose broccoli over the chocolate without the Elmo attachment, indicating that the presence of other factors such as parental influence clearly has some impact on the eating patterns of young children.
Food marketing to children is massive and expanding in number of venues (product placements, video games, the Internet, cell phones, etc.) and composed almost entirely of messages for nutrient-poor, calorie-dense foods, and clearly has a formidable impact. As a nation, if we really want to get serious about helping to prevent people, and especially children, from becoming overweight and obese in the first place we need to acknowledge what causes obesity. It’s not simply about individual behavior. Policy makers, state legislatures, school boards, members of Congress, executive-branch members, corporate boards, me, you, - all of us need to do our part. We need to put children’s health above corporate wealth.
- Harris, J. L., Bargh, J. A., & Brownell, K. D. (2009). Priming effects of television food advertising on eating behavior. Health Psychology, 28(4), 404.