WASHINGTON – Elmo loves broccoli and regular exercise.
Or,at least that's what a group of researchers is trying to make kids think.
Childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years – there are 9 million obese children in the U.S. – and finding ways to get kids to eat their broccoli has become a science all its own.
The research committee for a report on childhood obesity released in December met Thursday to discuss remedies. The National Institute of Medicine's report,“Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?” ties various marketing strategies to adiposity,or “fatness,” in children. The report,the most comprehensive study ever done on the subject,places most of the blame on advertising,including what kids hear at school,on television and at home.
It also lists 10 recommendations to help companies,media,parents and government to curb the growing number of overweight children.
Using the same methods junk food marketers use to persuade children is a step in a healthier direction,said researcher Sandra L. Calvert,director of the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University.
For example,“Sesame Street” has become an avenue for promoting healthy eating habits. The Sesame Workshop,the nonprofit organization behind the popular children's show,found children are at least as likely to choose healthy fruits and vegetables associated with Elmo or Big Bird as they would cookies and candy,said Jennifer A. Kotler,director of education and research for the group.
More than $10 billion is spent annually to market food,beverages and restaurants to young consumers,the report says,and many children aren't able to distinguish the difference between persuasive ads and their favorite television shows or Web sites. The Federal Trade Commission has left it up to the food and beverage industry to regulate itself.
But healthy marketing can't only be done on television,the report says. Committee chair J. Michael McGinnis,a senior scholar of the Institute of Medicine,said it is up to parents and schools to pitch in because the industry is unlikely to regulate itself.
“The set of levers that would have to be pulled across the industry is unimaginable,” he said. “They have underutilized their potential to creatively promote health in children.”
The panelists also said public policy to regulate Internet and cell phone marketing is possible in the near future. Web sites that use games and music to promote products have only recently been studied.
“It's scary how they can target children so accurately,” Calvert said. “We are in the midst of a national health crisis.”
The final report will be available in May. For more information,visit http://www.iom.edu