April 24, 2002 -- In the 1970s, 43% of the commercials that ran during children's programs hawked sugary breakfast cereals. Now, a new study reveals more commercials than ever are pushing bigger and bigger fast-food meals. The researchers say this trend could be contributing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity.
There's plenty of evidence showing that physical inactivity -- spending lots of time in front of the TV or playing video games, for example -- puts children at risk for obesity and other health ills.
And although this latest study "cannot confirm an association between the products advertised and the health status of children and teens ... our findings suggest that if young people were to consume many of the products being advertised to them, and also had a decrease in physical activity, this could contribute to obesity and heart disease," says researcher Marlene M. Most, PhD, RD, with the Pennington Biomed Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., in a news release.
The team watched all the commercials that aired during three hours of Saturday morning children's programming on ABC, CBS, and NBC during 10 consecutive weeks in 1976, in 1984, in 1992, and in 2001. They also obtained and analyzed the nutritional content for all the food being advertised.
They found that the number of fast food commercials has increased dramatically and the content of those ads has changed. In the '70s, fast-food commercials emphasized the food itself. In the '90s, they promised kids plenty of fun with their meal. Today, however, the emphasis is mainly on size.
"As a dietitian, it's disturbing to see even larger food portions being directed at young people, since most Americans already eat portions way beyond what is heart-healthy," says Most.
And it's not only the fast-food commercials that have changed for the worse. The researchers also found that today, there are more commercials for fruit drinks and fruit products -- many of which are peddled as healthy and wholesome, while they really contain little if any fruit and are made mostly of sugar.
These changes in the advertising geared to children are potentially harmful and their effects may be long lasting, says Most. They are aimed at "young people who are at an impressionable age in making food choices [and] many of these patterns in food choices may continue for many years, influencing an individual's health outlook for years to come."