Tips for Combating the Cartoons That Are Making Kids Fat & Unhealthy

Sheri Reed

Spiderman cerealYou may have read about the recently released study that revealed that kids choose foods with cartoon characters on them over those without.

It's no surprise to any of us who have had to pull our kids by one arm out of certain aisles in the grocery store, saying, "No, no, no, no, no." However, what can we do about it? How can we take on advertising companies with millions of dollars slated toward our kids?

Michael L. Bishop, MBA, PhD, and Executive Director of Wellspring joins us today with some tips and ideas for counteracting the cartoon-wrapped food craze with our kids.

Dr. Bishop, how is youth-based marketing affecting our eating habits?

Youth-based marketing is profoundly affecting the eating habits of children. The Influence of Licensed Characters on Children's Taste and Snack Preferences study recently published in Pediatrics investigated the influence of licensed characters on
children's taste and snack preferences. In this study, children tasted three pairs of identical foods (graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and carrots) presented in packages either with or without a popular cartoon character and indicated whether the two foods tasted the same or one tasted better. The children in this study significantly preferred the taste of foods that had popular cartoon characters on the packaging, compared with the same foods without characters.

The results of this study are probably not surprising to most parents. As a parent to a 5- and 7-year-old, I am all too familiar with the effect of licensed characters on children’s food preferences. A simple stroll down the cereal aisle at the grocery store yields box after box of cereal with the latest cartoon movie character or five-cent toy prize. Just try explaining to a child that Shrek or Batman is an imaginary character and has no actual culinary expertise. The practice of labeling foods with toys, characters, and celebrities aimed at children and teens grew 78 percent from 2006 to 2008, but only 18 percent of those foods met nutritional standards for children.

Another component of this issue is the profound effect of television advertising on food selection behavior. According to a new study comparing the nutritional content of food choices influenced by television to nutritional guidelines published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, making food choices based on television advertising results in a very imbalanced diet. Investigators found that a 2,000-calorie diet consisting entirely of advertised foods would contain 25 times the recommended servings of sugars and 20 times the recommended servings of fat, but less than half of the recommended servings of vegetables, dairy, and fruits.

In fact, the excess of servings in sugars and fat is so large that, on average, eating just one of the observed food items would provide more than three times the recommended daily servings (RDS) for sugars and two and a half times the RDS for fat for the entire day.

How have cartoon characters earned credibility with children in directing their eating decisions?

Children are naturally going to associate their favorite cartoon characters with something fun. Children lack the insight and experience of adults that tells us packaging has little to do with the nutritional content or quality of the food. People want to blame the parents, but the parents don't have billions of dollars to spend on counter-advertising.

Are there benefits to the cartoon characters? I have seen the Looney Tunes characters and Disney characters on fresh fruits and vegetables. Does that help or cause confusion since they are also on junk food?

Most of the 40 children in the study wanted the snacks labeled with cartoon stickers. Most also said the gummy fruit and graham crackers with the stickers tasted better, but not the carrots. The researchers felt that children might not prefer carrots with characters because they are not accustomed to seeing the stickers on healthy foods. Dora and SpongeBob first appeared on packages of fruits and vegetables in 2005.

I believe that parents should teach their children to read food labels and to ignore the use of licensed characters on food packaging. When I take my 5- and 7-year-old to the grocery store, I have them first identify the serving size, then the calorie and fat content of the food. This is where the focus should be, not on the cartoon character on the box.

Do you have any tips to help parents overcome clever marketing?

Parents need to show their children good habits. Role modeling healthy lifestyle habits are essential. Statistics show that children will see on average 10,000 advertisements for unhealthy food in a year: fast food, sugar sweetened cereal, soda, and candy. Remind your children that these products should only be eaten on rare occasions. Teach your children what a healthy meal consists of and what a serving size is. Show them in the grocery store how to read food labels and what limits they need to set on their calorie and fat intake.

How can children be empowered to decipher between making good choices that
are not related to character marketing?

For one, part of the reason children have weight issues is the lack of activity -- the fact that they’re watching so many cartoon characters is reflective of the fact that they should turn off the TV and get moving. The focus needs to be put on the nutrition labels, not on the character in front of the box. Parents need to teach their children how to decipher food labels and identify what foods are health versus unhealthy.

How does peer pressure play into this and how important is it?

If you have the food, and if others are eating the food, you are more likely to "give in to peer pressure." Many studies show that when individuals hang out with others who demonstrate poor habits -- bad food, no exercise -- those individuals are far more likely to show those behaviors.

What can parents who are implementing healthy eating do to influence parents
who are not?

Few calories are eaten at a friend’s house. Make the home healthy, family eating habits healthy, and the rest will take care of itself.

What do you think of Dr. Bishop's ideas for countering the cartoon-laden, bad-for-you food craze? How do you handle this at home?

Michael L. Bishop, MBA, PhD is Executive Director of Wellspring, the leading provider of effective, scientifically based treatment for obese and overweight adolescents and young adults. Mike is a licensed psychologist specializing in behavioral change who has lost approximately 100 pounds on the Wellspring Plan.


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