It’s no secret that, in the Western world, the health of children is becoming an increasing concern. Studies have shown that roughly one in three children in the U.S. can be considered obese,1 25% of European children are overweight or obese,2 as are one in ten children beginning school in Britain.3
Clearly there cannot be simply one explanation for this change in children’s health. The average Western diet has undergone complex changes over the past decades thanks to mass industrial production and widespread use of unhealthy ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. But a significant contributor is how unhealthy foods like candy, chocolate and potato chips have been rigorously marketed to children. This marketing has been called “disastrously effective” and is seen as a major factor contributing to the increase in childhood obesity.4
If all of this makes you want to cover your kid’s eyes and instigate a permanent T.V. ban, don’t be so quick! There are prominent people fighting back against this worrying trend. Recently, first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, has taken the lead in spearheading a campaign to reverse this marketing trend. One of her greatest achievements has been collaborating with America’s food titans to “work together on marketing healthy food to children”.5
It’s certainly necessary. Several studies show that children with televisions in their room are more likely to be overweight,6 suggesting a link with television advertisements (as well as a possible lack of exercise) since the food items most advertised on US TV are soft drinks, biscuits, fast food, candy, snacks, and heavily sweetened breakfast cereals.7
So what has Michelle Obama done to curb advertising’s effect on children’s waistbands and health?
First off she’s had a hand in persuading big companies like Disney to ban the advertising of junk food at their parks and on their channels. And then she’s publicly commended food companies, like Birds Eye, that consciously promote healthier food to their young consumers.8 Of course, convincing huge profit-driven corporations to act always in the benefit of their customer’s health at the possible expense of profit is a tall order. In the past, several have bucked against Obama’s efforts.9 But these small steps are extremely encouraging, as is the added clout of such an important public figure snapping at their heels.
It all goes back to 2010, when Obama spearheaded the “Let’s Move” initiative, aimed at curbing childhood obesity by focusing on four pillars:
getting parents more informed about nutrition and exercise
improving the quality of food in schools,
making healthy foods more affordable and accessible for families,
focusing more on physical education.10
This earlier initiative did not focus on the marketing of unhealthy food to children. It did, however, recognize the other issues that are intertwined with it in causing their unhealthy eating habits. It also helped that Obama was very empathetic, and conceded that in the past she too had resorted to feeding her children with unhealthy processed foods out of convenience.11
Public figures in other countries, have taken similar stands to better children’s health. In the U.K., celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has long been the face of the struggle to improve British children’s diets, starting with their school dinners. Though not nearly as relatable as Obama, (he “doesn’t buy” the argument that economic hardship can lead to a less healthy diet),12 he also recognizes the important role parental awareness plays in promoting health. Most famously, he’s had a great impact on the meals served in British schools through public campaigns and political lobbying.
With figures like the Obama’s and Oliver leading the way, any parent can make an effort to follow in their footsteps toward a healthier lifestyle for their children. We can’t immediately halt the advertising of unhealthy food to kids. What we can do is try our best to strike a balance, and make sure that they are equally exposed to healthy, delicious food at home.