Research also shows what sells food to kids: cartoons, celebrities, commercials on their favorite television programs, and toys in Happy Meals. This kind
of marketing induces kids to want the products, pester their parents for them, and throw tantrums if parents say no. Marketing makes kids think they are
supposed to eat advertised foods, and so undermines parental authority.
Public health officials look for ways to intervene, given their particular legislated mandates and authority. But much as they might like to, they can't do
much about marketing to children. Food and beverage companies invoke the First Amendment to protect their "right" to market junk foods to kids. They lobby
Congress on this issue so effectively that they even managed to block the
Federal Trade Commission
's proposed nonbinding, voluntary nutrition standards for marketing food to kids.
Short of marketing restrictions, city officials are trying other options. They pass laws to require menu labeling for fast food, ban trans fats, prohibit
toys in fast-food kids' meals and restrict junk foods sold in schools. They propose taxes on sodas and caps on soda sizes.
Research demonstrating the value of regulatory approaches is now pouring in.
Studies of the effects of menu labeling show that not everyone pays attention, but those who do are more likely to reduce their calorie purchases. Menu
labels certainly change my behavior. Do I really want a 600-calorie breakfast muffin? Not today, thanks.
New York City's 2008 ban on use of hydrogenated oils containing trans fats means that New Yorkers get less trans fat with their fast food, even in
low-income neighborhoods. Whether this reduction accounts for the recent decline in the city's rates of heart disease remains to be demonstrated, but
getting rid of trans fats certainly hasn't hurt.
Canadian researchers report that kids are three times more likely to choose healthier meals if those meals come with a toy and the regular ones do not.
When it comes to kids' food choices, the meal with the toy is invariably the default.
A recent study in Pediatrics compared obesity rates in kids living in states with and without restrictions on the kinds of foods sold in schools. Guess
what -- the kids living in states where schools don't sell junk food are not as overweight.
Circulation has just published an
American Heart Association review of "evidence-based population approaches" to improving diets. It concludes that evidence supports the value of intense media campaigns, on-site
educational programs in stores, subsidies for fruits and vegetables, taxes, school gardens, worksite wellness programs and restrictions on marketing to
The benefits of the approaches shown in these studies may appear small, but together they offer hope that current trends can be reversed.