Stalking the Couch Potato, Part 3

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Photo: Silvia Hartmann

Photo: Silvia Hartmann

Here is the third in a series of excerpts from the sample chapter accompanying a book proposal my writing partner, neuroscientist Elliott Blass, and I have been working on. Our aim in this chapter is to inspire those who care for and about young children to look at the influence that advertising has over their food preferences – and, perhaps, to express their thoughts in a message to their legislators. Given that we’ve decided on a new focus for the book, material in this chapter will be in the book, but arranged differently.

In case you missed Parts 1 and 2 of this chapter, here are the links.

Eating In Front of the Tube

Eating while watching TV affects the way children eat in a number of ways, none of them good. Minute for minute, the likelihood that a person – children included – will eat something without feeling hungry increases during TV-viewing time. The likelihood is great that what is eaten is something the person has seen advertised. This is very bad news for children’s nutrition, given that most ads they are apt to see are for things to eat, and the bulk of those ads are for unhealthful food and beverages. Even without advertising, TV watchers eat more per unit of time compared to those who eat with the TV off. In one study, college students ate about one-third more pizza or twice as much macaroni and cheese while watching a tape of a television show with its commercials deleted, compared with what they ate while listening to music.

Here we see the implications of eating in front of the television set: Overeating at a single high-calorie meal per week without a downward adjustment of intake the rest of the week, or an appropriate increase in physical activity to boost metabolism, will result in a weight gain on the order of four and a half pounds a year, the result of taking in 14.400 more calories than needed, or only 275 calories a week. That’s about one extra slice of pizza a week, or a one-cup serving of packaged, prepared macaroni and cheese. And that’s once a week, not every day.

To calculate the cost in weight gain of overeating, bear in mind that a pound of fat equals 3,200 calories. Every time a person with normal metabolism takes in 3,200 calories more than the body needs, that’s another pound gained, other things (level of physical activity and ratio of muscle to fat, in particular) being equal.

If children absolutely must eat in front of the TV, a solution to the weight gain problem – admittedly hard to put into place – is to make the candy, chips, and soda disappear and replace them with fruits and raw vegetables, cut into small pieces for convenience. The soda can be replaced with fruit juice well-diluted with water, lest the fruit sugar in the juice take the place of the sugar in the soda and candy that have been taken off the table. Because they are neither overly sweet nor salty, children are unlikely to gorge on healthy snacks as they do with the undesirable stuff. It’s not because the fruits and vegetables don’t taste as good, either. To a child (or adult) who doesn’t eat sugar, a raw carrot or apple is amazingly sweet. The fiber in fruits and vegetables is filling, and the absence of refined sugars and salt means that appetite is not unduly stimulated.

Of course, the ideal is that the substitution of fruits and vegetables not be a substitution at all. Parents of babies and toddlers will do well to make thin strips of carrots, for one example, the normal snack, keeping the bad stuff, no matter how heavily advertised, out of the house. Children who do not develop a sweet tooth before they start school will be less likely to grow one at all.

It’s the Ads, Not the Foods

A careful look at children’s behavior in the face of advertising suggests strongly that it’s the advertising and not the food itself that determines their preferences. It’s true that human beings are born with a preference for sweets and fats. This preference has evolutionary survival value; breast milk is sweet and rich in fat, so the innate preference prompts the newborn to take in nourishment. But the lactose (milk sugar) and fat in mother’s milk are a far cry from the relentless pushing of sugar and fat by those who advertise their food products to children.

Actually, children are so suggestible that they would most likely prefer fruits and vegetables to candy and chips if the prevalence of advertising these two classes of foods were reversed. This fact was demonstrated and published in the mid-1970s by a team of researchers at McGill University in Montreal. They experimented with children in California, exposing them to ads extolling fruits and vegetables and found in subsequent questioning they were more likely to prefer them than were children exposed to ads for sugary foods or those who saw no ads at all. Those who saw the fruit and vegetable commercials had little trouble afterward in indicating which classes of foods were good for them and which were not.

Similarly, children who saw a commercial in which an adult ate a cereal enriched with wild berries revealed an increased willingness to consider eating wild berries themselves. And in a reverse experiment, these researchers showed children an episode of the Fat Albert cartoon show, starring Bill Cosby, entitled “Junk Food”, in which viewers were encouraged to eat fruits and vegetables instead of junk food both as snacks and at mealtime. Again, children exposed to this cartoon expressed a higher level of preference for healthful food choices than those who were not.

In these experiments, the junk food ads shown were actual commercial productions, while the healthful foods were advertised in public service announcements (PSAs) which television stations used to be required to run at no charge to qualified non-profit organizations. In the deregulating enthusiasm of the 1980s, the PSA requirement was dropped. In a capitalist society such as that in the United States, it is easy to understand why fruits and vegetables are rarely advertised at all, let alone to the children’s market. Production and display of ads is expensive, and there’s not enough profit in fresh fruits and vegetables for any but a few growers’ associations to undertake such marketing.

Clearly, advertising to youngsters is a successful and profitable undertaking. Corporations and advertising agencies keep the results of their efforts under wraps, but a select committee appointed by the Institute of Medicine reported that advertising directed at the 2- to 11- year-old market was overwhelmingly effective. There were too few studies of the teenage market available for the committee to make a similar conclusion, but it noted that those it could obtain were consistent with findings younger market group.

Moreover, when the committee assessed the effects on children’s health of advertising of unhealthy foods, beverages, and fast food restaurants, the studies that met its strict standards for inclusion provided compelling evidence that fast food advertising directed at young children is a cause of obesity and malnutrition. Given the results of this study, presented by a highly respected organization of medical professionals, food manufacturers and their public relations agents can no longer claim lack of evidence of a relationship between their advertising and juvenile obesity. Not long ago, tobacco companies claimed there was no evidence that smoking caused cancer. Ultimately, that claim proved false. It’s only a matter of time before the one concerning obesity and advertising does, too.

How much TV exposure is necessary for a product to be preferred? Remarkably little, as it turns out. One study demonstrated that even one 30-second commercial tipped the child’s preference towards the advertised product. Frequent repetitions enhance the effect. It has been proven time and again that two identical print ads, run in consecutive issues of a newspaper or magazine, will draw more customers than a single ad twice the size. Similarly, two 30-second commercials are more effective than one that lasts for a minute.

It is worth noting that studies have consistently reported that children who watch TV in a room where the family tends to gather are more limited in the length of time they spend and the kinds of programs they watch than those free to watch whatever they wish in the privacy of their own rooms. Thus, children who see TV under adult supervision are exposed to fewer exhortations to eat junk food and in fast food restaurants.

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