Fight Junk Food Marketing to Kids

How to help your kids recognize and resist junk- and fast-food advertising.

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on November 14, 2011

It's Saturday morning. Do you know who's telling your child what to eat? If your children watch Saturday morning TV, you can bet that they're being bombarded with commercials advertising food of little nutritional value.

According to a recent report, the fast food industry is increasingly targeting its marketing toward children -- with kids seeing ads when they're as young as 2 years old. Children now see about 1/3 more fast food TV ads than they did just six to seven years ago, while preschoolers see 21% more.

That doesn't include advertising for the packaged foods your kids beg you to buy at the grocery store. And if your kids watch movies or spend lots of time online, experts say they'll see even more food marketing, thanks to ads and product placements.

But how much influence does food marketing have on your preschooler, grade-schooler, teen, or even you? A recent study showed that after viewing snack food advertisements, children and adults were more likely to eat more, regardless of reported hunger. Seeing the commercials trained them, in a way, to want the food.

In spite of these outside pressures, you, as a parent, can take control now and teach your kids to recognize and resist junk and fast food marketing. Here's how.

Set a limit for total daily screen time, including television and Internet. This will automatically reduce the number of commercials your kids see, says Mindy Greenfield, a certified family life educator at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, S.D.

She agrees with the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation: Discourage screen time for children under 2 years old and allow no more than two hours a day for older children. Another way to limit kids' exposure to food marketing is to use a DVR to record programs, Greenfield says. Then just show them how to fast-forward through the commercials.

Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, suggests watching commercials with your kids. Nestle is the author of What to Eat and Food Politics and is the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

According to Nestle, no matter how mouth-watering the junk food looks, you can say, "We only serve healthy foods at home." Let kids know that when they are adults, they can choose what to eat, she says. But right now, you call the shots.

Sometimes it surprises parents to realize they have control. And, Nestle says, they need to exert it if they hope to get their kids to eat healthy foods. That doesn't mean you have to be too strict. For example, she says it is OK to have a birthday party at a fast-food outlet or to declare Sunday the day to have a can of soda.

As you watch commercials with your kids, experts say you should break down the information, using it as ''teachable moment." Encourage children of all ages to rethink the food combinations they see on commercials, says Linda Bartholomay, RD, manager of outpatient nutrition therapy at Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D. One example is burgers, fries, and soda. You can suggest healthy substitutes, such as milk, fruit, or a baked potato.

Here's how to further analyze commercials, depending on your child's age:

Preschoolers: Play a game based on the stoplight concept, Greenfield says. Ask your preschooler, "Is this a 'green' food, one we can eat a lot of because it's healthy? Or is it 'yellow,' one that can be eaten sometimes, but not every day? Or is it a 'red' food, one that should be eaten only at special times?" Greenfield then suggests labeling snacks as green, yellow, or red to help reinforce the lessons from the game.

Elementary school-aged kids: Encourage them to think about ''how food marketers get us to buy their products," such as using familiar cartoon characters or fun shapes.

Tweens: Challenge tweens to think about what is missing from the commercial. Ask them: "What are they not telling us about this food?"

Teens: With teens, talk about the nutritional value of the foods and show them how to look at the food label. If celebrities are promoting the product, Greenfield says, point out that they are doing it for money. Remind them that just because a famous person is endorsing it doesn't mean the product is good for you.

You can also ask your teen if he thinks the commercial plays to his desire to be popular, says Bartholomay. She cites sugared-drink commercials that give the impression that athletes use these beverages. Show kids the nutritional information, pointing out the high sugar content.

Show Sources

Linda Bartholomay, RD, manager, outpatient nutrition therapy, Sanford Health North Region, Fargo, N.D.

Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health, New York University.

Mindy Greenfield, certified family life educator, Sanford Health, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Federal Trade Commission: "Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents."

American Academy of Pediatrics: "Children, Adolescents, and Television."

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity: "Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth."

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