Stop Junk Food Marketing to Kids

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Food and beverage companies spend $2 billion a year promoting unhealthy foods to your kids
  • The fast-food industry spends more than $5 million every DAY marketing unhealthy foods to children
  • Nearly 40 percent of children’s diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats
  • 95 percent of kids’ foods <i>marketed as healthy</i> contain added sugar
  • Parents must teach children about the value of fresh, whole unprocessed foods early on to combat the marketing messages of junk-food advertisers and instill healthy food habits for life

By Dr. Mercola

Junk food is contributing to skyrocketing rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and even strokes -- and not just among adults.

Food and beverage companies spend $2 billion a year promoting unhealthy foods to kids, and while ultimately it's the parents' responsibility to feed their children healthy foods, junk food ads make this much more difficult than it should be.

A new campaign, We're Not Buying It, is now underway to help expose deceptive marketing to children, debunk industry claims, and highlight the latest research, in the hopes of ending this assault on today's youth, and I'll explain how you can get involved, too, below.

Does Your Child Recognize the "Golden Arches"?

Most toddlers recognize the sign of McDonald's "golden arches" long before they are speaking in full sentences.


Because they are often raised on French fries, fast-food hamburgers and orange soda, or if "raised" is a bit of a stretch, are taught that French fries, chicken fingers and soda is an acceptable meal. Have you noticed that even in "regular" restaurants the kids' menu options are almost always entirely junk food like pizza, macaroni and cheese or fried chicken strips?

Of course kids will probably prefer these foods if that's what they're offered; these foods are manufactured to taste good, and most kids aren't going to opt for a spear of broccoli over a French fry -- until they're old enough to understand the implications of the choice, and assuming you have taught them about the importance of eating healthy foods along the way.

In many ways society is set up against you on this one. As The Interagency Working Group on Foods Marketed to Children (IWG) reports:

  • The fast-food industry spends more than $5 million every day marketing unhealthy foods to children.
  • Kids watch an average of over 10 food-related ads every day (nearly 4,000/year).
  • Nearly all (98 percent) of food advertisements viewed by children are for products that are high in fat, sugar or sodium. Most (79 percent) are low in fiber.

So even under the best circumstances, your kids will probably be exposed to the latest "cool" kid foods, and this is what marketers are banking on. Then, when you go to the grocery store, your child will have a meltdown if you don't give in and buy the cereal with their favorite cartoon character on the box, or the cookies with brightly colored chips. If you're a parent, it's certainly easier to just give in, but it's imperative to be strong as shaping your child's eating habits starts very early on …

Your Child's Taste Preferences are Created by Age 3

Research shows when parents fed their preschool-aged children junk foods high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats, it had a lasting impact on their taste preferences. All of the children tested showed preferences for junk foods, and all (even those who were just 3 years old!) were also able to recognize some soda, fast food and junk food brands.

The researchers concluded what you probably already suspect: kids who were exposed to junk food, soda and fast food, via advertising and also because their parents fed them these foods, learned to recognize and prefer these foods over healthier choices. This does have an impact on their health, as nutrients from quality foods are critical in helping your child reach his or her fullest potential!

One study from British researchers revealed that kids who ate a predominantly processed food diet at age 3 had lower IQ scores at age 8.5. For each measured increase in processed foods, participants had a 1.67-point decrease in IQ.

As you might suspect, the opposite also held true, with those eating healthier diets experiencing higher IQ levels. For each measured increase in dietary score, which meant the child was eating more fruits and vegetables for instance, there was a 1.2-point increase in IQ.

The reality is, the best time to shape your kids' eating habits is while they're still young. This means starting from birth with breast milk and then transitioning to solid foods that have valuable nutrients, like egg yolk, avocado and sweet potatoes. (You can easily cross any form of grain-based infant cereal off of this list.)

From there, ideally you will feed your child healthy foods that your family is also eating -- grass-fed meats, organic veggies, vegetable juice, raw dairy and nuts, and so on. These are the foods your child will thrive on, and it's important they learn what real, healthy food is right from the get-go.  This way, when they become tweens and teenagers, they may eat junk food here and there at a friend's house, but they will return to real food as the foundation of their diet -- and that habit will continue on with them for a lifetime.

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This is What Happens When You Let Marketers Dictate Your Kid's Diet …

The state of most kids' diets in the United States is not easy to swallow. As IWG reported:

  • Nearly 40% of children's diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats.
  • Only 21% of youth age 6-19 eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day

This is a veritable recipe for disease, and is a primary reason why today's kids are arguably less healthy than many prior generations. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure -- these are diseases that once appeared only in middle-age and beyond, but are now impacting children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that by 2050, one in three U.S. adults will have diabetes -- one of them could be your child if you do not take steps to cancel out the messages junk-food marketers are sending and instead teach them healthy eating habits.

Make no mistake, the advertisers are doing all they can to lure your child in.

In fact, last year the food and beverage industry spent more than $40 billion, yes billion, lobbying congress against regulations that would decrease the marketing of unhealthy foods to kids. You can do a lot of persuading with $40 billion, which may explain why food manufacturers are allowed to get away with so much -- like putting pictures of fruit all over product packaging when the product actually contains no fruit.

A 2011 study by the Prevention Institute even found that 84 percent of food packages that contain symbols specifically intended to help people choose healthier foods did not meet even basic nutritional standards! In fact, 57 percent of these "Better-for-You" children's foods were high in sugar, 95 percent contained added sugar, and 21 percent contained artificial colors. So you need to be very wary when buying any processed foods for your kids, even the "healthy" ones, as they will most certainly contain large amounts of fructose with very little to offer in the way of healthy nutrition.

Help Fight Back Against Junk-Food Marketers and Stand Up for Kids' Health

The Prevention Institute's "We're Not Buying It" campaign is petitioning President Obama to put voluntary, science-based nutrition guidelines into place for companies that market foods to kids. You can sign this petition now, but I urge you to go a step further and stop supporting the companies that are marketing junk foods to your children today.

Ideally, you and your family will want to vote with your pocketbook and avoid as much processed food as possible and use  unprocessed raw, organic and/or locally grown foods as much as possible. Your children should be eating the same wholesome foods you are -- they don't need bright-blue juice or deep-fried "nuggets" any more than you do.

If you and your kids are absolutely hooked on fast food and other processed foods, you're going to need some help and most likely some support from friends and family if you want to kick the junk-food lifestyle. Besides surrounding yourself with supportive, like-minded people, you can also review my article "How to Wean Yourself Off Processed Foods in 7 Steps" or read the book I wrote on the subject, called Generation XL: Raising Healthy, Intelligent Kids in a High-Tech, Junk-Food World.

Finally, my nutrition plan offers a step-by-step guide to feed your family right, and I encourage you to read through it now. You need to first educate yourself about proper nutrition and the dangers of junk food and processed foods in order to change the food culture of your entire family. To give your child the best start at life, and help instill healthy habits that will last a lifetime, you must lead by example. Children will simply not know which foods are healthy unless you, as a parent, teach it to them first.