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Food advertising fattens up obesity-prone children

About one-quarter of Australian children are obese or overweight, and recent research has found it may not be entirely them or their parents’ fault. Instead, a combination of unfortunate genetics and advertising is partially to blame, a study has found.

“Many people ask me why they can’t walk past a plate of brownies sitting on a table when their best friend can,” said Diane Gilbert-Diamond, lead study author and assistant professor of epidemiology at Dartmouth College in the US. “It’s a compelling question because it gets to the individual differences in how people respond to food,” Gilbert-Diamond told Reuters Health. “Many people think it’s a matter of self-control, yet our research looks at how food cues motivate consumption.”

The researchers, from Dartmouth, gave 172 children, aged 9 or 10, lunch, to ensure they were satiated. Half of the children were then instructed to watch a 34-minute kids’ TV show, dispersed with toy ads. The other half watched the same show, but with junk-food ads.

Whilst transfixed, the children were furnished with an infinite supply of junk food: gummy candy; cookies; chocolate; and cheese puffs. Every child’s calorie intake was measured at the conclusion of each show. What the researchers found was that not only did those exposed to the food ads eat more, but children with a specific type of obesity gene were the biggest indulgers.

The guilty gene is called the fat mass and obesity-associated gene, or FTO. It comes in three varieties: high obesity-risk; medium obesity-risk; and low-obesity-risk. Children with the high obesity-risk strand of FTO ate 125 more calories whilst watching food ads than those with the same genetic distinction who were privy to toy ads.

Those with the medium-risk gene gobbled only 95 more calories than their toy-ad-watching genetic equals.

As for the kids with the low-risk gene, they actually consumed fewer calories watching the ads for fat, sugary foods than they did when watching did toy ads.

The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, resonates worldwide, as junk food advertising is borderless.

A 2010 study that used data from Australia, Asia, Western Europe, and North and South America, found that food ads made up 11 to 29 per cent of all TV ads and, of that proportion, a majority were for products that were not nutritious. This is supported by Parents’ Voice, an online network of parents who are interested in improving the food and activity environments of Australian children. Parents’ Voice’s annual Fame and Shame Awards have found that a majority of child-targeted ads are for unwholesome products, like Kellogg’s LCM bars or McDonald’s Happy Meals. The latter’s Minions commercial won the ‘Shame Award for Pester Power’ last year.

‘But what of new media?’ you might ask. Junk-food advertising is now just as prevalent on social media sites, online games and various apps as it is on the box. On Facebook, for example, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks were among the estimated highest advertising spenders in 2013.

Australian policymakers are seemingly onto the correlation between junk-food advertising and childhood obesity, but not adequately, said Jane Martin, executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition.

Although, in 2009, the Australian Government called for a reduction or elimination of junk-food ads that targeted kids, according to Martin this hasn’t occurred because it relies on self-regulation. “We haven’t seen comprehensive restrictions,” she offered.

Apart from the impact of marketing messages on kids’ waistlines, Martin also explained a less-discussed effect: “The child is sitting down watching TV or looking at stuff on an iPad.” To combat childhood obesity comprehensively then, genetically prone or not, kids need to get off their iPads and get moving.

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