I’ve heard stories about how much parents hate taking their kids through the cereal aisle at the grocery store. Apparently, it is the aisle parents most dread, with the brightly colored boxes of sugary cereal displayed at children’s eye level with enticing cartoon characters and promises of kid-friendly prizes you can send away for. Sugary breakfast cereals are just one of the many junk-food products targeted at kids, and it can make navigating television, the grocery store, and pretty much everywhere else in the world really difficult if your goal for your children is good health.
The State of Kids’ Health
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, between 16 and 33 percent of children and adolescents are obese! This number has grown substantially in the course of a single generation. When I went to school there was one “big” kid but now the classrooms are full of them. Obesity in children is a strong indicator of obesity in adulthood, and health concerns can develop early including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Increased risk of heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
- Increased risk of cancer
- Sleep disorders
Why Are More Kids Obese?
While no single cause is the smoking gun for children with obesity, correlations exist that suggest many factors contribute including:
- Families are likely to eat out 4-5 times per week, mostly at fast food and casual dining restaurants
- Foods marketed to children like breakfast sugar and snacks are laden with high-fructose corn syrup, starch, empty calories, fat, salt, and chemicals.
- Many school districts offer school lunches that are completely unhealthy.
- Children drink soda and juice, which are full of sugar, HFCS, and other chemicals.
- Many overworked, overscheduled parents turn to cheap, fast, overly-processed convenience foods to feed their families.
- Marketing claims create a false sense of what is healthy.
- Children are increasingly inactive and not eating foods for energy, all natural and organic.
- Chemicals in foods can cause all kind of endocrine, metabolic, and health disorders that contribute to obesity.
Targeting Your Kids
Many companies target your kids, often in sneaky ways. That’s because your kids are their future customers, and if they can build brand loyalty now, they’ll have a customer for life. Likewise, children have what’s called the “pester” factor. Many just continue to pester their parents to purchase junk items until the parents, unable to take it any longer, just give in. Here’s how junk companies are targeting your children.
- Websites offer free downloads and games that make junk foods seem exciting and healthy.
- Corporate sponsors (including food companies) have worked their way into the schools, creating sponsored “educational” handouts, placing snack and soda machines in school districts, and even providing school lunches. They also donate technology in classrooms in return for prominent placement or advertising.
- If you ever watch children’s programming, you’ll find ads for all kinds of junk food including fast food restaurants, cereals, and other snack foods that make eating such foods look cool. You’ll even find product placement in children’s programs.
- Product placement in the grocery store, which has become an obstacle course for many parents, is set with kid-targeted foods at children’s eye level. Believe me, kids notice.
- Internet advertising is so sophisticated that it’s easy to individualize ads to the computer-user. If that’s your kids, you can bet they’re getting a lot of information about junk foods.
- Casual dining and fast food restaurants offer children’s clubs, playgrounds, arcades, and other incentives to get kids in the door.
Protecting Your Children
Many consumer groups are seeking to protect children from invasive advertising. It’s worked in the past. Tobacco companies used to regularly market to children with characters like Joe Camel until it was outlawed, and it could work in the junk food industry, as well. If you’d like to participate in the effort, you can sign the Prevention Institute’s “We’re Not Buying It” petition to President Obama. While you’re waiting for legislation to help, there are things you as a parent can do.
- Offer your kids healthy fruits and vegetables.
- Be aware of the products that appear healthy but are unhealthy to kids and offer alternatives.
- Contact your school about school lunches and corporate marketing in the schools.
- Talk with your children about corporate marketing claims and how they can damage their health.
- Limit television viewing, and watch with your kids. Discuss any commercials they see.
- Supervise your children’s Internet use and prohibit them from going on corporately sponsored websites.
- Talk to your children about healthy eating and explain what constitutes healthy foods. Teach them which foods will make them feel good and keep from getting sick.
- Be an example to your kids, making healthy choices. This is vital!!
- Eat dinner together as a family, and offer healthy, homemade foods instead of dining out. If time is an issue, you can prepare foods on the weekends and freeze them – or toss together a healthy salad for dinner.
- Don’t give in to your child’s marketing-triggered demands and don’t use unhealthy snacks as a reward.
- Shop at farmer’s markets and natural food stores. If you go to the grocery store, shop around the edges where the healthiest foods are and avoid the aisles.
Marketing companies exert a strong influence but as a parent, you can be an even stronger force in your child’s life. While it may be a little more of an effort, the payoff is that your children will be healthier for it, and ultimately I believe, happier. Excellent health contributes to children being able to pursue their goals and dreams, unhindered.
how would you suggest handling a situation in which one parent wants to give the child the healthiest foods possible (no dairy, lots of veggies, etc…) and eats that way themselves, but the other parent refuses to eat that way (choosing mcdonalds, dairy, and other fare) in order not to send mixed messages? i’ve also gotten a lot of people who say that you shouldn’t “force” kids into a vegan lifestyle and they should get to pick when they’re old enough…but aren’t you “forcing” them into a carnivorous lifestyle on the other end of things? just a few thoughts i’m struggling with. you are such an inspiration and have taught me SO much. hopefully someday people won’t see my eating habits as “picky” or “restrictive” and there’ll be less explaining to do!
Hi. I am the same. You do what you think is right for your babies. They will thank you when they are living alone at college and cook brown rice, kale and tempeh out of habit. My girls drink green smoothies, as do I, all of us somewhat unwillingly, but we know it’s so healthy it’s worth it. So your a freak- I’ll bet a pretty healthy one- wave your flag while you can. Husband issue: it is what it is. He isn’t your kid and you can’t dictate his diet with the kids. My dear Mother fills my kids with junk every weekend. They feel yucky afterwards and have made the connection between foods and how they feel. You are doing a great job in a food-ignorant world so please keep it up! People flip out when they see what my girls eat and ask how I do it. No, very simple. My child doesn’t have the skills to make informed food choices. That is my job. Just say NO, when you can. Let the rest go, they won’t die from McDs with Daddy sometimes.
Thank you for that! You seem like you’re doing a great job 🙂 Good things to keep in mind. He always says that if he’s giving them McDonald’s and I’m giving them lettuce, we’ll see which on they like better, (Not entirely an accurate comparison, but you get the idea! Lol.) so hopefully they can tell the difference in how they feel, too!
You are right Jamie. The mixed messages are everywhere, including within the family. We moms have to try to stay strong and send the right message. However we can’t control everything
Thanks Kimberly. I know that the only way we can stop this trend NOW is by teaching our children. So grateful for resources like this. Our children fight this daily, including teachers offering candy, soda and other junk as incentives in the classroom. So proud of my kids when they come home and tell me proudly that they said, “NO!” The junk isn’t going to go away, but they can learn to make good choices and turn their backs on the junk.
Great post Kimberly. My favorite suggestions are: Limit television viewing, and watch with your kids. Discuss any commercials they see. Supervise your children’s Internet use and prohibit them from going on corporately sponsored websites. Thank you!
Hi Kim 🙂
I have class in the evenings and was wondering what are some snacks that I can eat to keep me awake and focused? Thanks 🙂
This is a constant challenge as unhealthy food options are everywhere! I constantly explain to my kids that the food companies make a lot of claims to trick people into buying their products. They get it, but they still want the same treats their friends have.
My solution has been to cook at healthy snack home, even if it’s more work. It’s so well worth it in terms of cost and nutrition – and once you get it down it tastes so much better too!
I’ve heard that Robyn Openshaw’s book The Adventures of Junk Food Dude is a great resource to share with young kids. My kids love green smoothies every day and fresh fruits and veggies in their lunches. They still want to buy pizza at school every now and then, and I let them, but at least 3 days a week, they bring a healthy lunch from home. My biggest complaint about our school cafeteria? Kids are REQUIRED to get milk – strawberry, chocolate, or white. There is no juice, and kids can only buy water at an additional charge IF AND ONLY IF they have taken a milk with their lunch – it’s outrageous!
Not really. Milk is healthier anyways. Water has no nutritonal value.
Hi Kimberly, I have read your book, but I’m still wondering about when to eat fruit. I understand I should eat it on an empty stomach, but is it best eaten between the GGS & lunch? Can I wait for an hour an have as a snack after lunch or dinner? There don’t seem to be enough hours in the day for fruit, lol! Also, I can’t find a gluten-free bread without sugar. Do you know of any or have a recipe. I wouldn’t mind making it myself. Thanks & love your book!
I have found a great alternative to tv, a site from pbs and it’s called learnoutloud. It has so many fabulous narrative books. There are some of the best that are public domain and are free. It has changed me from a tv addict to getting rid of cable tv entirely. Maybe there are some great books for kids too.
just a note as nutritional consultant, i think that if we would explain to kids , what happens when we eat this way,and make it visial and exciting. They are very eager to learn and understand. Hope this helps anybody!
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Hi Kimberly! I have a question and wonder if you could pla tell me something abt Maqui. Found this berry by accident and I’ve never heard of this “superfruits” before and I wonder if it’s true that it has more antioxidant then Acai? What’s your thought abt this Maqui berry? Pose give me some light on this one.
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