It’s the Junk Food Commercials

Remember all those studies that show a direct correlation between the number of hours kids watch TV and their weight? The conclusions of these studies all warn that too much television leads to an all too sedentary life, which leads to obesity.

Well. Today a study was released which concluded that it’s not the hours of TV, but the number of junk food commercials! Oh, those savvy junk food marketers. Did you know that by the time a child is 5 years old, they have seen an average of more than 4,000 television commercials for food annually? During Saturday morning cartoons, children see an average of one food ad every five minutes! And up to 95 percent of those ads are for junk foods.

The UCLA School of Public Health study published in the February 2010 issue of the American Journal of Public Health is the first to break down different kinds of television content to see whether or not the different kinds of content may have different kinds of effects on obesity.

From the Medical News Today article covering the new study:

The researchers gathered data from primary caregivers of 3,563 children, ranging from infants to 12-year-olds, in 1997. Through time-use diaries, study respondents reported their children’s activities, including television viewing, throughout the course of an entire weekday and an entire weekend day.

Caregivers were also asked to report the format – television programs, DVDs or videos – and the names of the programs watched. This data was used to classify television viewing into either educational or entertainment programming and to determine whether or not it contained advertising or product placement. A follow-up was conducted in 2002.

The analysis controlled for the amount of physical activity and the children’s gender, age, race/ethnicity, mother’s body mass index (BMI), education and sleep time.

Among all children, commercial viewing was significantly associated with higher BMI, although the effect was stronger for children younger than 7 than for those older than 7, the study found.

“The persistence of these results, even when the child’s baseline weight status was controlled, suggests that the association between commercial television viewing and obesity does not arise solely or even primarily because heavier children prefer commercial television,” said Zimmerman, professor and chair of health services at the School of Public Health and the lead author of the study.

Non-commercial viewing, including watching DVDs or educational television programming, had no significant association with obesity.

According to the authors, the findings strongly suggest that steering children away from commercial television may be effective in reducing childhood obesity, given that food is the most commonly advertised product on children’s television and the fact that almost 90 percent of children begin watching television regularly before the age of 2.

Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, read the study’s conclusions and argued for legislative change:

The authors conclude: “steering children away from commercial television may have a meaningful effect in reducing childhood obesity…The existence of many high-quality, enjoyable, and educational programs available on DVD for all ages should make it relatively easy for health educators and care providers to nudge children’s viewing toward less obesogenic television content [my emphasis].”

Relatively easy? They have to be kidding. Food commercials are ubiquitous in kids’ lives.

For example, Lisa Sutherland and her colleagues at Dartmouth took a look at the prevalence of food brands (mostly junk foods) in movies from 1996 to 2005 (Pediatrics, February 2010). There are loads of such placements, and movies aimed at younger kids tend to have the most.

As for industry self-regulation, Kelly Brownell and his colleagues at Yale have plenty to say about how it’s not working and what would be needed to make it work (also in the February American Journal of Public Health).

Michelle Obama may not be able to touch this one, but Congress can. And it should.

Once again I find myself uncomfortable with this debate. On the one hand, I loathe excessive government intrusions into parental rights. My own kids, for example, are very sheltered from food advertising. They don’t watch TV. They don’t go to public school. And with few exceptions, they don’t even watch kid movies. But avoiding food advertising wasn’t even a factor in any of those lifestyle decisions. And if the average parent working a job, sending their children to daycare and public school and the like really did want to help their child avoid that advertising, how could they do it without radically changing their entire lifestyle? Yes, you can limit the kinds of TV your child watches, but that control only goes so far. What do you do about the TV or movies your child watches at daycare, at school, or at friends’ houses? Shouldn’t there be some kind of protection there for children, for those who are too young or too ignorant?

Another point of note: children are often the target of marketing, even though they don’t have the buying power. Why is that? Because it works! Study after study has shown that kids have the power to sway the buying decisions of those in authority over them. Sure, you can blame the parents for giving in, hold them accountable for what their kid eats. But that blame only goes so far. Again, what are you to do about what your children are fed in daycare, in school, or at their friends’ homes? What do you do when your children are old enough to buy food from vending machines and convenience stores? Yes, you can teach them better, but they’re still kids. You’d like to hope they’d exercise better judgment, but if they don’t you can’t hold it against them. That’s why they’re the children and we’re the adults.



  1. Julie says

    “On the one hand, I loathe excessive government intrusions into parental rights. ” I agree with this statement. Usually government involvement doesn’t stop once it starts. I can easily see it going from limiting commercials to pushing commercials of eating “low fat” and “lots of grains”. The change needs to come from the parents and be consumer based. It’s not easy but it has to be at the parental level. I know many day cares and schools that do not allow tv. Talk with the day care and schools, write television broadcasters, limit home tv watching. Having 3 kids I know first hand how kids recognize food advertisements but I don’t let that affect my food purchases. When kids make there own food choices at friends houses or in vending machines, I don’t think it matters much who is on the cover, they are probably going to go for the sweets. But if we as parents can limit the sweets on our end, the occasional sweets that they get are, hopefully, going to be offset.

  2. Alex says

    As a retired marketing and advertising executive who made the decision to leave the business to raise my girls and also because it didnt feel like right livelihood to me, i have never regretted my decision to work in the business and then leave it. It taught me a few things that i was able to teach my children and thus not shut them off from the world, but allow them to grow in it and make their own informed choices…from the age of 3 my kids could say “its a marketing ploy isnt it mommy?”….

    They understand that food advertising is just a promise of excitement and that most foods that are advertised are not foods. They enjoy foods made with love and sometimes come to me and say–can we figure out how to make those rice krispy treats with love? and i always say–yes…:)

    spending time with your kids, playing, cooking, learning and loving will counteract any marketing ploy out there…a loved balanced kid doesnt crave sugar…they know where the good stuff comes from!

    by the way–LOVE your site!!! :)

  3. Melanie says

    I think as parents we can only do our best once our kids are “in the world.” Teach them well. Give them a taste for real, good food. Realize that they will probably eat junk with friends or on their own sometimes. Realize that it probably won’t kill them. Hope they make good choices when they are on their own, and know that most of the time, they are eating what’s right. Just like we will have to do when they are grown up.

  4. says

    Junk food commercials for kids stink, not much argument there. But another thing that irks me is that even on educational programming, characters are always reaching for “skim” milk or “low-fat” yogurt or something, and it’s very visible and obvious to anyone who can read. Granted I have a bigger problem with a kid eating a candy bar than a glass of skim milk, but it’s all about trying to push someone else’s nutritional standards on our kids. I guess that’s where the discomfort about letting the goverment regulate everything comes from. Because agencies associated with the government (like the ADA, FDA, USDA, etc.) want our kids to go on fat-phobic, cholesterol-hating diets that shun eggs and meat and good whole milk!
    .-= Elizabeth @ The Nourished Life´s last blog post …Weight Loss Wednesday: It’s More than What You Eat, It’s How You Live =-.

  5. says

    Humm. I found this really interesting. My girls (ages 3 and 5) do not watch a lot of TV. PBS in the morning and an occasional DVD.

    What I find interesting is that my kids do not, often, ask for any food item they see on TV. Their current fav. food is my homemade yogurt and a new soaked baked oatmeal dish I make. I even recently cut out cereal and they haven’t complained once. Part of this may be because we just moved back from Europe (Portugal). My five-year-old’s preschool made all their food from scratch. She ate fish and homemade soup (usually pork broth, legumes, carrot, onion, garlic, pumpkin) daily. Top that with mom’s homemade cooking, they rarely even eat junk food if it’s put in front of them. They, simply, have not aquired a taste for it. Fortunately, for us, we’re moving to Germany. They’ll get to taste the flavors of another country and I’ll seek out real food served at restaurants and will always serve REAL food at home. They are developing broad palettes’ at a young age – some call them food snobs already – I hope so!

    For my kids, I think food influences will come later, in high school and college and, hopefully, be short lived. I think this study may have missed kids like the ones you and I raise. They just aren’t too interested in the food shown on TV. The toys, however, are another thing….
    .-= Natalie´s last blog post …Back to Reality =-.

  6. tina says

    I have more trouble with my family and friends when it comes to my kids’ diet. They’ve never had the crap advertised in commercials. What they do ask for are all the made in China toys.

    I’m hopeful that lard, beef tallow, grass-fed meat, raw milk and the like will be the norm when my boys get to school (I have a 1.5 and 4 year old.) We can always be hopeful, can’t we..

  7. Robin says

    We limited TV to an hour a day for chillin time after school while eating a snack, usually healthy. We ate mostly home cooked meals but occassionally took our daughter to McD for a happy meal and the playground with other kids. We moved in her teen years and really advanced our nutrition with our own goat herd and gardening. As a family we cooked and worked our land together teaching many lessons and values along the way. Our daughters 23, a healthy weight, loves to be active, prepares home cooked meals for her husband and soon baby. Parents are still the best teachers, model the behavior you want.

  8. KarlaB says

    Yes it has got to come from the parents — more specifically from mothers. We’ve had opportunities to move to Europe, but it is my country that needs me (and people like us) most. My kids are also immune to the junk food ccommercials on tv, but not the toy ones. So getting rid of nickelodeon was an easy choice.

    Being a sociology major (focusing on food) I talk and talk and talk as much as possible and start interactions surrounding the importance of children’s diets being based on healthful fats, and obviously what healthful fats are.
    Yesterday my 4 year old had a speech evaluation (we’re in a trilingual home and his English proficiency is not up to par according to his teachers) and they were thrilled with his cognitive skills and the fact that he was so concentrated for the hour and a half exercises. I sat them down for 10 or so minutes explaining why this is most likely so. His calories come primarily from good fats, pastured lard, grass-fed beef tallow, grass-fed butter, raw milk, pure coconut oil, pastured local bacon and eggs, etc. The idea is implanted now in them, and what they do with it is out of my hands. But they are in very influential positions do make change.

    Trust me, once the junk food commercials are proving ineffective, they will stop. The demand (which is most influential from the mid- to upper-middle class) is what they (food corps) care about most, and this is where the most social pressure should go. What Costco mom buys lunchables and if confronted would actually defend their nutritional content? They know it’s junk. They just don’t get how it affects everyone (chemical dependency/ poor school environment/ waste, etc.)

    Keep talking and fighting the good fight. Because this is it.

    • says

      We’ve lived in Europe only b/c my husband is an Arny officer. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be an option. But, I’m glad we’ve had the experiences we’ve had living abroad. We’ve certainly gotten a “taste” of a different lifestyle and it has helped to see that obesity is America’s biggest export. However, it seems that more so than food on TV, it’s the junk toys that influence my kids the most. Even in Europe, those commercials are horrible. I try to keep local TV off and only let my kids watch AFN (military tv w/o no toy or food commercials). However, when learning Portuguese, I did let my daughters watch a little Portuguese TV – just kept her out of the stores! I refuse to buy junk toys anyway – so, for now, it’s a dead issue.
      .-= Natalie´s last blog post …Back to Reality =-.

  9. Ruth G. says

    This reminds me of a program that my mother saw on TV – The 700 Club. It was about a very young boy that was having continuous seizures and couldn’t even sleep because of them. After many doctors, they found a doctor that knew right a away what the problem was. He did not have enough fat in his brain. They put him on a carefully monitored high fat diet (bacon and full fat yogurt, etc.) Soon his seizures completely disappeared. This is an example of what a “low fat” diet can do.

  10. says

    It’s so true, Kristen. Children are absolutely bombarded by influences and advertising everywhere they go. To shelter them completely, you’d have to put them in a box and never let them out. Still, you can minimize their exposure. As you say, your children don’t attend public school and they don’t watch t.v. Our situation is similar. My son is home schooled and we don’t watch television during his waking hours unless it is one or two half hour shows on PBS or a video from our choosing. I’m actually really disappointed at the advertising that has been let in on PBS in the last 5 – 10 years during children’s programming.

    But, our best friends who do the same home school program we do allow their kids exposure to things we normally don’t – so we have to compromise sometimes. They feed their children industrial food and have cable television (cartoon network) on a lot, as well as allow their children to play video games. Two years ago I relented and let our son have a handheld video game for his birthday – but his time is quite limited on it, and the games are educational. It’s very difficult to balance our son’s time away from those things when his best friends are always doing them.

    I do feel lucky that they don’t let their children watch much inappropriate or questionable material. Most of it is pretty innocent and clean. I just wish they were more mindful of keeping their kids off the media. The funny thing is, their daughter, who is my son’s best friend, is a great student and loves to read. She also eats her vegetables. My son, on the other hand isn’t crazy about school, won’t read unless he is forced to, and doesn’t like to eat his vegetables much. Even so, because he eats so much healthy protein and fats, I think that’s why he has a great vocabulary and reads several grades above his level, rarely gets sick, and somehow still manages to do really well in school. He’s one of those kids who is naturally smart and doesn’t have to put forth as much effort to do well.

    Overall, I think the media and advertising is a huge deficit on children’s ability to focus and pay attention to what’s important. And it greatly influences what they want to eat as well. The best we can do is to reinforce good habits at home and minimize their exposure to inappropriate and dangerous things. Thanks for this article, Kristen!
    .-= Raine Saunders´s last blog post …Want to Learn How to Cook Traditional Food? Sign Up For This Great eCourse! =-.

  11. says

    Here is what I think of Whole Foods Market. My friend posted this on Facebook. I call it…How to screw up whole food.

    Sweet Potatoes and Apples (product at the Whole Food Market)
    Sweet Potatoes, Apples, Red Onions, Jalapeno Honey, BBQ Sauce (honey, ketchup [tomato, vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, salt,onion, spice]), water, dijon mustard (mustard seed, vinegar, water, sea salt), sugar, cider vinegar, jalapeno, curry, garlic, lemon, shoyu (water, soybean, salt, wheat, alcohol), worchestershire (cider vinegar, soy sauce, water, molasses, agave syrup, garlic, salt, tamarind, spices, mushroom, xanthan gum, botanical extracts, cloves, smoke), canola oil, paprika, tabasco salt and pepper.

    While I am not a chemist or nutritionist, I am pretty good judge at what is considered a whole food. Adding this much crap to anything removes that badge!

    This comment was originally posted on Mark’s Daily Apple

  12. mike says

    No Kidding! I won’t shop there becuase I can’t afford it! However I shop at the Farmers Market, and buy our eggs from a local farmer. Typically, smaller outfits mean higher mark-up because they can’t rely on mass quantities to make up for slim margins, but my eggs are the same price as Walmart even, some veggies I buy for literally a third of the price, most are comparable at worst!

    It really angers me to see someone who won’t even entertain a scientifically supported idea for no reason! But If the winds ever change and we are granted a smathering of popularity (reguardless of truth mind you) they’ll soon be slapping ‘eat healthy America’ labels on canned bacon grease

    This comment was originally posted on Mark’s Daily Apple

  13. says

    Ketchup? BBQ sauce? HFCS? Canola Oil? Try buying some of the main whole ingredients and tossing them with some butter or extra virgin olive oil and a little nutmeg. While I don’t disagree that there ARE a lot of good things in the recipe, the very fact that they start adding products that are NOT healthy choices is what I have the beef about.

    This comment was originally posted on Mark’s Daily Apple

  14. John R says

    Shoyu is an all-purpose variety of Japanese soy sauce. (It’s distinguished from Tamari, which uses less — sometimes no — wheat in the production process). Basic ol’ Kikkoman is a shoyu.

    Personally, I’m fine with worcestershire but I’ll skip the oversugared/HFCS’d bbq sauce in favor of my own.

    This comment was originally posted on Mark’s Daily Apple

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