Are America’s children overweight because of advertising? A new study suggests that banning fast-food ads would reduce the number of overweight children ages 3 to 11 by 18 percent and would reduce the number of overweight adolescents ages 12 to 18 by 14 percent. However, common sense — something often missing from research reports and very underrated in America today — reminds us that the single most important variable in child obesity is parenting.
There was a time in history when children would ask for things that they neither had the maturity nor the discernment to resist and their parents would simply say, “no.” This new study tells us more about the deterioration of the American family than the likely effectiveness of advertising censorship. Can we just be honest? Television commercials do not make kids fat but parents surely can. (I leave aside the question of genetic predisposition to obesity, and mean to imply no blame to those who are blameless.) Children learn good or bad eating habits actively, through parental oversight, or passively, through parental neglect.
I had no idea that children ages 3 to 11 watch fast-food and junk food advertising on television, drive themselves to fast food restaurants, using money earned from working forty hours a week and their debits cards to stuff themselves on extra-large fries. I had no idea that kids 12 to 18 years old arrived at adolescence and randomly adopted unhealthy eating habits that were contrary to what was normalized during early childhood.
A glaring weakness of the study is its analyzing of data as an abstraction disconnected from the reality of the family. The hypnotic power of advertising is falsely believed to trump the power of a healthy family. In its focus on media, the study fails to ask other critical questions.
Do obese children come from homes where parents and children do not eat together at home regularly? Results from a study published in Obesity Research show that children eating with other family members are 15 percent less likely to be overweight compared to those who never or only sometimes eat dinner with another family member. In addition, the more frequently children ate dinner with their families, the less likely they were to be overweight.
This may explain why it is now internationally recognized that the most effective ways to decrease childhood obesity are daily family meals together coupled with increasing parental influence on children’s food options.
In October, participants at the Children’s Nutrition Research Centre conference in Brisbane, Australia, heard about a two-year health study showing parents and children who started a healthy food program lost more weight than those who focused solely on exercise. The survey by Clare Collins, a health school professor at the University of Newcastle, examined 165 obese children aged 5 to 9. It underlined the fact that parents were still the biggest influence on child nutritional health. “The most important thing you can do for your kids is to sit down at the table as a family,” she said.
A July study by the American Medical Association recommends that families concerned with combating childhood obesity, “limit consumption of sweetened beverages and fast food, limit screen time, engage in physical activity for at least 60 minutes per day,” and hold family meals on “most, and preferably all, days of the week.”
Divorced and single parent families, understandably in light of the time challenges they face, often see fast-food as an easier option. Children raised by single parents are more likely to be overweight than those in two-parent families, according to a national study published in the International Journal of Obesity. Researchers studied more than 7,000 children aged 7 to 11 and found that those raised by one parent were 40 percent more likely to be overweight.
Adults in general may share blame, however, because of their own poor eating habits. Childhood obesity rates essentially mirror obesity rates among adults. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that overweight rates are 13.9 percent of children aged 2 to 5, 18.8 percent of those aged 6 to 11, and more than 17 percent of those 12 to 19. The most recent CDC data reveals that among adult men the prevalence of obesity was 33.3 percent, and 35.3 percent among women.
There is an ancient proverb, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Banning advertising will have no effect on the fact that childhood obesity is most often a function of the nature of the relationships of those closest to them, the people we call parents.