Hypocrisy, obesity and kids

Imagining feeding your child this for breakfast:

This for lunch:

And this for dinner:

You wouldn’t feel great about that, would you?

Surely you wouldn’t consider it a healthy diet.

And most likely you wouldn’t be shocked if your kid got a little chubby.

Foods like these are among the many reasons why childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008, among kids aged 6-to-11, according to the Centers for Disease Control. One of the truly sad facts about this great nation of ours is that about one-third of all children and adolescents are overweight or obese. It’s also a problem that will cost all of us, as government spending on health care continues to rise.

Of course, we all know that kids eat too much prepared, sugary, fatty foods. They also don’t get out and move around enough. Childhood obesity problem is complex and multifactoral. You can blame television, videogames, fast food, bad parenting and so forth.

Until recently I’ve tended to let corporate America off the hook when it comes to obesity. [See, for example, my 2011 blopost, Mmm…mmm..who’s to blame for obesity.] Now I’m starting to think that big food companies are part of the problem, and not part of the solution when it comes to obesity. This is particularly true when it comes to marketing to kids.

They’ve decided that Cocoa Puffs, Peter Pan Peanut Butter and a “carnival corn dog” with fries quality as  “healthier or better-for-you foods,” and therefore they are deemed suitable for advertising to kids.

Yes, these products — along with Campbell’s Spaghetti-O’s with Meatballs, Goldfish Sandwich Bread – White, Pepperidge Farm Flavor Blasted Goldfish – Xplosive Pizza, ConAgra’s Kid Cuisine KC’s Primo Pepperoni Double Stuffed Crust Pizza, Chef Boyardee Overstuffed Beef Ravioli, General Mills’ Lucky Charms, Reese’s Puffs and Trix, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and Keebler® Gripz® Chips Deluxe® cookies – are among  “Food and Beverage Products that Meet Participants’ Approved Nutrition Standards that May Be in Child-Directed Advertising.” They appear on a list of “healthier or better-for-you” foods is published by the Children’s Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative, a coalition of 16 food companies operating under the auspices of the Better Business Bureau.

Which makes me wonder: Better for you than what, for goodness sake? Stuffing your face with Doritos and ice cream instead of eating dinner?

I learned about the list earlier today at the Atlantic Food Summit,  an afternoon event in Washington organized by the magazine (one of my favorites) and hosted by the estimable food writer Corby Kummer. Speakers included Martha Stewart (boring), Mario Batali (laugh-out-loud funny and inspirational),  Kathleen Merrigan of USDA and Kirsten Tobey of Revolution Foods, an impressive startup that I’ll return to another day.

What grabbed me was the conversation about childhood obesity, and in particular the role of food marketing. I’m a fan of crunchy peanut butter, but I don’t think it’s responsible for companies to advertise it on kids TV.

“Parents don’t stand a chance against the food environment today,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I find myself feeding my daughter horrible stuff despite my best efforts.”

Jennifer Grossman, senior vice president of the Dole Nutrition Institute, which (surprise!) promotes the benefits of fruits and vegetables, said: “We do get sort of drowned out by all of the marketing of the unhealthy food that is out there.”

Coming to the defense of the industry was Elaine Kolish, director of the aforementioned Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. “Obesity is such a complex problem,” she sighed. Just the other day, she said, The Washington Post reported on a study saying that babies born by C-section may be more likely than those delivered vaginally to become obese. Of all the ads that children are seeing, she said, fewer than 25% are for food, and there’s no evidence that more ads lead to more obesity.

But if ads weren’t selling more Cocoa Puffs and carnival dogs, would the companies be spending millions of dollars to buy them?

When advocates of healthier food criticized companies like General Mills, Kellogg’s, Campbell and ConAgra for their very generous definition of “healthier and better for you,” the companies got defensive. Wootan said:  “It was embarrassing how the food industry reacted. Industry came and said this is what we’re doing. Take it or leave it.”

Gary Hall, as a collegiate swimmer. Courtesy: SI Vault

Of course, if kids got more active, they could eat more sugary and fatty foods without gaining weight. A standout voice on the panel belonged to Gary Hall Sr., who is executive director of the World Fit Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes exercise, mostly walking, in elementary schools. Hall is an impressive guy, and not just because he brought home Olympic medals from Mexico City (1968), Munich (1972) and Montreal (1976). A retired opthamologist, he now recruits fellow Olympians who visit schools to try to inspire students and combat childhood obesity.

“A little bit goes a long way with activity,” Hall said. “We just want to get the kids moving. Walking for 30 minutes. Simple.”

He delivered the most shocking statistics of the afternoon: “Two percent of high schools today have physical education. Three percent of elementary schools today have phys ed. It’s been abandoned, mostly for financial reasons.” [NOTE: Please see comments below. These statistics turn out to be wrong.]

That’s dumb.

Nearly as dumb as calling Cocoa Puffs better for you.


  1. says


    I attended too and felt that the discussion would have benefited from having less industry participants and more people on the consumer side. I agree with you that industry alone is not responsible for making changes but why are parents allowing these products into their kids’ diet? One key problem is time. While we are driving our kids from school to soccer, there is no time to prepare a fresh meal let alone to sit down and consume it. Perhaps it is time to take a step back and look at our whole pattern of life. Also, some light needs to be shone on the practice of non-stop snacking. When we arrive at soccer (after eating something on the go, maybe a happy meal) there is snack at half time and again at the end of play. Kids can last 30 minutes of running around without collapsing, they don’t need to keep grazing!! Sometimes, the group/coach/organizers will list orange slices or other acceptable snacks but people still bring in cheetos and “fruit flavored” snacks. This will negate whatever exercise the kids put in anyway.

  2. Darren Toth says

    I enjoyed the article, until the end, where I must have misunderstood. Gary Hall claimed that “Two percent of high schools today have physical education. Three percent of elementary schools today have phys ed. It’s been abandoned, mostly for financial reasons.” Maybe I misunderstand, but that is an incredible falsehood and I don’t understand where he gets that statistic. First off, Athletics are some of the biggest budget allotments for most high schools, and, once again, it’s simply not true. Please someone help me here.

  3. Darliene Howell says

    Studies show that dieting, even that considered “naturalistic”, among young people lead to weight cycling [Naturalistic weight reduction efforts predicted weight gain and onset of obesity in adolescent girls; http://ebn.bmj.com/content/3/3/88.full

    There is an evidence-based compassionate alternative to conventional dieting: Health At Every Size®. Please consider this alternative prior to making a decision that may result in weight cycling.

    I would also like to recommend the free NAAFA Child Advocacy ToolkitSM (CATK) and other written guidelines/resources. The NAAFA Child Advocacy Toolkit shows how Health At Every Size® takes the focus off weight and directs it to healthful eating and enjoyable movement. It addresses the bullying, building positive self-image and eliminating stigmatization of large children. Additionally, the CATK lists resources available to parents and educators or caregivers for educational materials, curriculum and programming that is beneficial for all children. It can be found at:

    For more information on Health At Every Size, you can find a general explanation on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_at_Every_Size) or find in-depth research-based information in the book Health At Every Size – The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Dr. Linda Bacon (http://www.lindabacon.org/HAESbook/).

  4. Warren Goldstein says

    Hi Marc–

    He delivered the most shocking statistics of the afternoon: “Two percent of high schools today have physical education. Three percent of elementary schools today have phys ed. It’s been abandoned, mostly for financial reasons.”

    Unfortunately, this shocking statistic is completely wrong, and totally irresponsible. By more than an order of magnitude–closer to a factor of 25-30– as a simple google search of “percentage of schools with PE” will demonstrate. PE has declined due to No Child Left Behind, no question, but the more recent trend seems to be putting more PE back into the school day.

    What is true is that recess has disappeared in thousands of schools, along with music, art, and social studies, as schools struggle to meet NCLB benchmarks.

    And what remains true is that calling Coco Puffs healthy is worse than dumb–it’s deceitful, and the industry knows it.

  5. Ed Reid says

    It would be interesting to know what percentage of these food products are purchased with SNAP cards.

  6. Sheryl Skoglund says

    “Industry came and said this is what we’re doing. Take it or leave it.” Let’s leave it. Many health issues involved here. Excellent Article.

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