Pediatrics group urges lawmakers to ban childhood obesity “media diet”

Childhood obesity has become an epidemic in America – with 17 percent of children aged 2 to 19 obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics “has a new suggestion: ban companies from advertising junk food during children’s television programs.”

ABC News reports, “The AAP has long called for ‘parents to put their kids on a “media diet”;’ and now the organization is “going a step further by calling on Congress to ban fast food and junk food ads” during shows directed at children.

The Los Angeles Times “Booster Shots” blog reported that in the policy statement, the AAP not only calls on physicians to “ask Congress and regulatory groups to ban advertisements for junk food and fast food during kids’ programming,” but also “advertisements targeted to children via cellphone and other media.”

It also makes recommendations, the first of which is for physicians to ask parents: “How much time does your child spend in front of the screen? And is there a TV or Internet connection in your child’s bedroom?”

The recommendations “continue from there, growing broader and more far-reaching.” The statement also “cites several studies” establishing that “TV ads prime children to prefer and request high-fat and high-sugar foods” and that poor “snacking habits while watching TV may contribute to weight gain.”

Here are more details in a report from HealthDay News:

“Given that we are smack in the midst of an epidemic of child and adolescent obesity, it doesn’t seem like all that bad an idea,” said Dr. Victor Strasburger, lead author of the statement.

“We have many bans on advertising already,” said Dr. Benard P. Dreyer, a professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. This latest action identifies just one more toxic thing that children should not be exposed to, he added.

One-third of American children and teens are overweight or obese, double the proportion of 30 years ago, the AAP statement said, and several studies have identified TV watching as a contributing factor.

Watching TV or movies or being engrossed in texting or playing games on a cell phone means that children have less time to run, walk or otherwise exercise and more time to snack, according to the AAP statement.

But what kids are watching also influences their eating habits, and what they’re seeing is a preponderance of commercials for high-sugar, high-fat foods. One study found that 98 percent of food ads seen by children on top-rated shows were for junk food. Another study estimated that young people see 12 to 21 food ads every day on average, for a total of up to 7,600 ads a year, the AAP statement noted. And TV or DVD watching also disrupts the quality and length of sleep, a known risk factor for obesity.

The AAP statement reminds pediatricians that they should be asking two critical questions during routine well-child visits: “How much screen time is being spent per day?” and “Is there a TV set or Internet connection in the [child’s] bedroom?”

Having a TV set in the child’s bedroom seems to have an even more profound impact on children’s weight.

“I think [asking these questions] is really an advantageous recommendation,” said Dana Rofey, an assistant professor in the Weight Management and Wellness Program at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “Several years ago, the AAP [recommended] that pediatricians track body-mass index. This is the other side of the coin.”

“Kids spend an average of seven hours a day with media, and that media potentially affects virtually every concern that parents and pediatricians have about children from sex to drugs to obesity to school achievement,” added Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque. “Spending 20 seconds to ask two media-related questions doesn’t seem like that onerous a request.”

The policy statement also recommends that pediatricians urge parents to discuss food advertising with their children and discuss healthy eating habits.

And “parents need to understand that the research is now clear and convincing that exposure to screen time is one major factor in child and adolescent obesity,” stressed Strasburger. “So if your child is watching five hours of TV a day, his or her risk of being obese is several times increased over a child who watches less than two hours a day, which is what the AAP recommends. If parents would just observe the AAP guidelines about media use, they’d be in great shape and so would their kids.”

In response to the AAP recommendation, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative issued the following statement: “Much of the American Academy of Pediatrics statement regarding an ad ban is based on old or seriously flawed data. Simply put, if advertising caused obesity, why have obesity rates increased while television advertising has dropped significantly?”

The industry statement added, “With the 17 CFBAI industry participants representing a substantial majority of the ads on children’s TV programming, the ad mixture has changed for the better, as the [Institute of Medicine] IOM recommended in its 2006 report. Ads to kids now are for yogurt, soup, canned pasta, cereals, and meals with vegetables or fruit, milk or juice.”

There are also many, many tips for families in my book, SuperSized Kids: How to protect your child from the obesity threat.

 

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