Kids and Junk Food

When it comes to junk food, we usually know better than to gulp down an extra large soda at the movies or dive into an entire bag of chips by ourselves, but what happens when our children adopt these unhealthy habits?

Take the proposed New York City “soda ban,” which would have prevented certain retailers from selling sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces. It was struck down by a state Supreme Court judge last week, much to the chagrin of healthy eating advocates in the medical community.

Initiatives like soda taxes have been proposed in the past, and many agree that such actions would be a step in the right direction. At the very least, laws like these would encourage parents and kids to buy smaller portions of sugary indulgences.

New studies also err on the side of caution with children's health in mind. Research published this week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine shows just how harmful sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) can be for young people.

"The primary aims of our study," said lead investigator Kevin Mathias of the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "were to determine the extent to which SSBs contribute to higher caloric intake and to identify food and beverage groups from the overall diet that are associated with increased SSB consumption."

Using data from the 2003 to 2010 What We Eat in America national health and nutrition survey, researchers found that among nearly 11,000 children ages two to 18, SSBs were primarily responsible for the higher caloric intakes of children who consumed SSBs as compared to those who didn’t drink them.

Also a cause for concern, "[a]mong all age groups analyzed, the energy density (calories per gram) of food consumed increased with higher SSB intake,” Mathias said. And that food is hardly healthful; think pizza, potatoes, and candy.

There are no surprises here. Liquid sugars have been shown time and time again to be one of the most significant contributors to children’s weight gain and poor dietary choices.

The Perils of Celebrity Endorsements

University of Liverpool researchers have found another source of blame for the high-calorie epidemic: celebrities. More specifically, celebrities who hawk products aimed at kids.

In a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers discovered that children who watched footage of former soccer player Gary Lineker consumed more of what they thought were Walkers chips, the brand that Lineker endorses. The 181 children ages eight to 11 chose more chips labeled "Walkers" than those labeled "Supermarket" after watching an advertisement or other TV footage featuring Lineker. The children also didn’t limit their intake, leading to over-consumption of the chips.

"The study demonstrated, for the first time, that the influence of the celebrity extended even further than expected and prompted the children to eat the endorsed product even when they saw the celebrity outside of any actual promotion for the brand,” said lead researcher Dr. Emma Boyland of the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society at the University of Liverpool.

"This research has consequences for the use of celebrities, and in particular sports stars, in advertising unhealthy or High Fat Salt and Sugar (HFSS) products. If celebrity endorsement of HFSS products continues and their appearance in other contexts prompts unhealthy food intake, then this would mean that the more prominent the celebrity the more detrimental the effects on children's diets," she said.

What Can Lawmakers Do?

The food and beverage industry is a multi billion dollar business that could use some reining in when it comes to marketing snacks to its most impressionable customers. Fortunately, as a consumer you have the purchasing power and can make your voice heard.

Should a soda tax proposal make it to your area, contact your local representative to let him or her know that you want your child exposed to the healthiest options available. Even if taxes and bans don’t pan out, lawmakers can still promote diet and exercise campaigns that target children.

How to Curb Your Child's Junk Food Consumption

Drinks can be kid-approved sweet without the added sugar. Get your kids hooked on sugar-free treats that don’t substitute nutrition for taste, and they might not even miss sugar. Or, invest in a juicer and let kids create their own healthy, fruity concoctions.

Be a role model. It’s up to parents to ultimately decide what their children eat, not the celebrities who are paid millions to say they love this or that product. And chances are your kids care more about what you think than their favorite actor or athlete. Explain to them why a celebrity endorsement doesn’t always mean that a product is good for them, and be the real superstar by eating and drinking fruits, vegetables, fresh juice, and water to set a positive example.

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