The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently released a set of guidelines calling for stricter control of marketing of foods and beverages to children, in an effort to address increased obesity rates in kids. The guidelines call for all companies, advertising agencies, schools, and other organizations to eliminate any sort of marketing to children that directly or indirectly endorses foods CSPI deems unhealthy.
Don't get us wrong -- we think it's important for kids to eat healthful foods, and we think parents are right for trying to encourage them to do so. But we think that CSPI's good food/bad food dichotomy only serves to exacerbate the problem by creating greater confusion about healthy eating practices.
First, the guidelines are meant specifically to address obesity but neglect to mention the important role of overall calorie consumption in controlling weight. Many foods labeled "healthy" are actually just as caloric as the "unhealthy" ones. Two hundred calories from milk are exactly the same, in terms of contributing to obesity, as two hundred calories from soda. The guidelines ignore the fact that no food is inherently bad or good. The key is moderation. While eating only macaroni and cheese would be unhealthy for a child, so would eating only broccoli. The guidelines make no mention of the fact that even "healthy" foods need to be eaten in moderation and that foods that don't meet the "healthy" criteria are perfectly acceptable when eaten in reasonable quantities with reasonable frequency. What we should be concerned about is not an individual food item but overall diet and total calories.
Furthermore, the guidelines lead to confusing conclusions about foods that can contribute to obesity. Avocados actually contain enough fat to be stricken from the "healthy" foods list, yet they fall into the "fruit and vegetable" category that is broadly endorsed by CSPI. Are avocados meant to be considered good or bad? CSPI says that drinks containing at least 50% juice, with no added caloric sweeteners, are "healthy," yet these guidelines neglect the fact that the natural sugars in fruit juices can contribute to weight gain just as much as the "added sugar" in soda. Indeed, many of the foods on CSPI's "healthy" list would be more likely to contribute to obesity than many that are excluded from the list (for example, orange juice is more caloric than Diet Coke).
Since the guidelines focus on marketing and media messages aimed at all children (presumably anyone under age eighteen), they ought to take into account the fact that advertising that is appropriate for a seventeen-year-old may not be appropriate for a four-year-old. Age-appropriate messages (as well as age-appropriate dietary guidelines) are important but are neglected in this publication, which makes the same generalizations about healthy foods and suitable marketing for children of all ages.
To the nutrition issues CSPI glosses over, add the issues of food companies' First Amendment rights, the "forbidden fruit" theory that children may be more attracted to prohibited items, and the fact that older children will soon leave their homes to enter an adult world of unrestricted advertising and food choices.
So here are our suggestions for parents: rather than calling on companies and agencies to change their marketing, do what you can from home. Provide a variety of different types of food and encourage your children to eat them all in moderation. Provide meals that make fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products more appealing, and eat these meals with your children. Go outside and throw around the football with them so they'll get more exercise. Take them to a professional if they have weight problems.
Parents can have the biggest impact on their children's diets. By modeling healthy eating and exercise behaviors and by discussing the reasons for their choices, parents can instill in their children an understanding of appropriate measures of weight control, so that the children will continue to make good choices when away from their parents. Parents can also influence what kinds of foods and beverages are available in their kids' schools -- and what sorts of messages about food are sent there -- by talking to teachers and administrators. But calling for industry-wide restrictions and marketing guidelines is unlikely to help in the campaign against childhood obesity.
You can never stop all the images of things you think might harm your children, so do your best to encourage a complete understanding of what makes for a healthy diet. Then your children can grow up making their own informed choices -- and enjoying many foods, in moderation.
Lynnea Mills is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health.