Why Kids are So Fat
Business + Economy

Why Kids are So Fat

A Q&A with Anjali Jain, M.D., pediatrician, obesity researcher, and policy analyst
Nick Bhardwaj / The Fiscal Times

When they see children wolfing down fast food meals or chomping on fatty chips, some medical professionals don’t just see red. They see the advertising and food promotions that made the kids — and their parents — believe that their food choices were acceptable. Aside from a whole host of economic, cultural and behavioral factors that pitch families toward high-calorie, low-nutrition choices, the portion sizes that are marketed at fast food and chain restaurants lead average Americans to believe that a double cheeseburger with bacon and mayonnaise is standard.

Parents and other caregivers have long worried about advertising to children on television and in other media. According to the Advertising Educational Foundation, “The children's market today (through age 12) is estimated to represent $500 billion, consisting of both personal spending of $200 billion — primarily for snacks, soft drinks, entertainment and apparel — and $300 billion in directly-influenced spending in these same categories plus food, toys, health and beauty aids, gifts, accessories and school supplies.” Despite legal restrictions on TV and Internet advertising to children, American kids are still being targeted with ads for fatty foods, sugary cereals, high-calorie drinks, and any number of other unhealthful food choices. Food marketing and advertising is now slickly woven into the fabric of films, video games, computer programs, social media and many other venues. According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, entitled “It’s Child’s Play,” more than eight out of ten of the top food brands that target child through TV advertising also use branded websites to market to children online.

Other numbers tell their own sad story: One in six American kids is obese today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kids who are obese after age six have a more than 50 percent chance of being obese as adults, and obese individuals typically accrue as much as $29,000 in added medical costs over their lifetime. Nationally, treatment for medical problems related to obesity costs an incredible $90 billion or more per year.

Dr. Anjali Jain, 45, has a unique perspective on food marketing and children’s health. A pediatrician and obesity researcher, she serves as chair of health care on the Maryland Childhood Obesity Committee and is an assistant professor of pediatrics and health policy at the Children’s National Medical Center and George Washington University, both in Washington, D.C. She has two children, ages 14 and 9.

The Fiscal Times caught up with her to learn more about childhood obesity:

The Fiscal Times (TFT): In a recent article in the journal Health Affairs, you wrote that widespread Internet use and increased “connectivity” (including cell phones and other handheld devices) have spurred the growth of food marketing, much of which targets children. Just how pervasive is this?

Anjali Jain: Although there are no firm figures on how much food marketing they see — and it is constantly changing — we do know that currently the vast majority of ads are for highly processed foods that are high in fat or sugar.

TFT: Can we say definitively that this food marketing 2.0 has added to the childhood obesity problem?

AJ: I think we can say that food marketing has made childhood obesity worse. Short of doing the kind of controlled studies that are neither ethical nor feasible, it is clear that food marketing influences the eating behaviors of children, even very young children.

TFT: So what should responsible marketing entail?

AJ: Parents, in addition to being the purchasers, are the first stop for decisions affecting children, and marketing directed toward parents instead of children may go further and faster towards the development of products that consumers want but are good for children.

TFT: You also write about a new field of market research called neuro-marketing that uses brain studies to measure responses to ads and other marketing. How does it work?

AJ: The responses are captured as changes in electrical patterns or blood flow to specific areas of the brain, using imaging techniques that have traditionally been used for medical purposes such as FMRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). With neuro-marketing, researchers can measure responses more directly in the brain itself. They’re looking for what products evoke reactions and feelings, which will more closely translate to buying behavior.

TFT: But must we also go back to basics, in a sense, and model good eating habits again?

AJ: Parents naturally want their children to eat and are often happy when their children are interested in food, even if that food is not the healthiest. So parents have not been as aware or vocal about marketing’s potentially harmful effects.

TFT: What should they do?

The Biggest Offenders
Wendy's BaconatorBaconator TripleWendy's1330
Domino's Bread Pasta BowlBread Bowl PastaDomino's670
Taco BellTaco BellChipotle Steak Taco Salad900
KFCBreast-Leg BiscuitKFC620

AJ: Parents need to help children use the media responsibly, watch with them and help them to understand advertising content and intent. When I have surveyed children, many older children who are otherwise well-educated do not understand how television and the internet are created or funded. They trust rather than question what they see, sometimes more than they trust their parents.

TFT: Do you see a greater role for government to take in this area?

AJ: I would advocate that the government do more to support parents in carrying out healthful practices for their children. Some restrictions on what is allowed to be advertised to children would help parental messages prevail. I also believe media literacy, or the responsible use of media, should be part of every child’s education.

TFT: How do you keep your own two daughters healthy and at the right weight — which presumably they are?

AJ: Our family’s basic philosophy is to only have foods in the house that we want our children to eat, and to have what I would call “real” foods rather than highly processed foodlike products. We also try to keep our daughters busy, active and engaged in worthwhile pursuits, so that they’re more exposed to and influenced by the people around them than by screens. Of course, as parents we have to practice what we preach. We are fortunate, however, in that we are not genetically predisposed to obesity, although even for us it is a constant effort.