Yes, ban fast-food toys

I consider it my parental duty to pay attention to what my children eat – not only at home, but at school and elsewhere.

Sure, I strongly believe in teaching them to become independent and make wise choices, but the fact of the matter is they still need nutritional guidance. When it comes to making food choices, they’re up against some powerful forces.

World-Herald reporter Michael O’Connor brings to the front page one such force in his Jan. 30 article,  Toying with kid’s health. A proposed bill (Nebraska’s Legislative bill 126) would keep fast-food outlets and other restaurants from including toys in kids meals unless the accompanying food meets nutrition requirements.

I particularly worry that people might come to the same, nutritionally dangerous conclusion as the parent whose closing argument quoted in the article was that “fast food is supposed to be fun and entertainment.”

I, too, have found myself pressed for time at the end of a long work day, driving children around from one scheduled activity to another and faced with pleas for the “fun and entertainment” that fast food promises to deliver. But that doesn’t change what we know about fast food or any of the other outside forces that threaten our children’s nutritional fortitude.

An ever-increasing number of children are now deemed overweight or obese. Poor nutrition and less than ideal dietary habits are posing an ever-expanding threat to our children’s (and in many cases, our own) overall health and well-being – a threat that we simply can not take lightly.

As Iowa Senator Tom Harkin put it, “The childhood obesity epidemic isn’t just a catch phrase. It’s a real public health crisis.”

Here in the United States, unhealthy foods are marketed to even the youngest of children. But the magnitude is staggering and the extent to which our children are being influenced may surprise you. I hope the following information will help you better recognize just what we are up against.

  • Food Fact #1: Children are not only witness to literally thousands of television food ads every year, but an overwhelming majority are for foods significantly lacking in nutritional value. With the exception of a recent (and much heralded) carrot campaign, the vast majority of ads (on the order of nearly 98 percent for 2 to 11 year olds and about 90 percent for adolescents) tout energy dense, sugary, salty and/or fatty foods.
  • Food Fact #2: Exposure to food-related television advertisements increases children’s consumption. In a study of the impact of television ads, exposure to food-related ads was a powerful enough cue to increase food intake in all children studied. Simply put – seeing is not just believing. It causes children to eat more of the unhealthy foods they see in TV ads.
  • Food Fact #3:  Fast-food companies use toys to market their children’s meals. This fact alone isn’t a big surprise, but now remind yourself that fast food meals typically take the cake when it comes to placing at the very top of the nutritionally dangerous list. Next consider that of the reported $520 million that fast-food companies spent on marketing children’s meals in 2006, toys accounted for nearly three-quarters of this spending. That means marketing messages are being packaged right in your Happy Meals, disguised in the ever-so-appealing form of a toy.

Some parents believe that what children eat should be left up to parents and parents alone. After researching and writing my book, Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor and a Bottle of Ketchup, I can’t agree. Even with the best of nutritional intentions, parents are up against a lot. Parents can and should try to steer clear of fast-food, teach children to opt for healthier options when purchasing children’s meals, limit children’s television time (and with it, exposure to unhealthy food ads), and encourage daily physical activity along with plenty of fruits and vegetables.

I’m very afraid, though, that those parental interventions alone aren’t going to be enough to overcome the childhood obesity epidemic.