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Rants & Raves Hey Kid, Want a Free Toy? How Junk Food Advertising Harms Your Child

We’ve all seen adverts that target our children with the latest expensive toy, but junk food advertising is much worse. These adverts go one step further, actively harming children in exchange for our money.

The junk food industry’s marketing techniques are extensive and widespread. They shamelessly use child-friendly animal mascots, free toys, and celebrity endorsements which encourage our children to consume fat, salt and sugar as often as possible. It’s appalling and although new legislation banning online adverts aimed at children is welcome, it doesn’t go far enough. In fact it may already be too late.

Are Children Eating Themselves to Death?

Childhood obesity rates have risen dramatically. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported 42 million children were overweight in 2014. They predict 70 million will be obese by 2025 if nothing changes.

junk food

The UK has one of the worst obesity rates, at an estimated cost to the NHS of £6 billion a year. By 2050 it’s thought 35% of boys and 20% of girls aged 6-10 will be obese. These stats are upsetting because overweight children are more likely to be bullied and have low self esteem whereas healthy weight kids learn better and have more self confidence.

Overweight children are more likely to be overweight adults too, and this raises the risk of heart disease, some cancers, type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and depression. I’m not fat-shaming, but the fact stands that overweight children are unhealthy and need help. They deserve better and it’s heartbreaking so we’ve got to find some ways to stop it.

How Junk Food Adverts Harm Your Child

One of the ways children have become overweight is through eating the wrong diet, and part of that issue is the insidious problem of junk food advertising.

Take a can of cola for example. The full fat versions have nine teaspoons of sugar which is around 35g. The recommended maximum for a five year old child is no more than 19g of sugar in a day. Cola is advertised by sportsmen and models, the message being drink cola and you’ll be fit, beautiful and cool.

The food industry is just as guilty when they bribe kids into eating a salty, fatty burger or fat-fried chicken wings in return for a free toy that’s one of a series to collect. Breakfast cereal might seem safe. There’s a happy cartoon monkey swinging through the jungle that advertises a cereal with vitamins and minerals and you can get 50% off at Legoland too. But it’s got 9g of sugar per 30g portion.

Adverts like this are widespread infecting the TV, internet, shopping malls, and bus stops. Wherever children are, junk food companies show them it’s cool to eat and drink unhealthily – only they never use that word.

Another way junk food harms your child is through the environmental cost. Junk food is not sustainable and it’s destroying our environment. The production of livestock for food makes a huge dent on our world. According to a study it causes one fifth of greenhouse gases, uses a massive amount of land that prevents biodiversity and species extinction. It pollutes waterways with an overabundance of nutrients, not to mention the fact these are animals and deserve more respect.

Cut down on this behaviour and in return we’ll be healthier, fitter, and live in a more sustainable world – but still we eat junk because McDonalds and the like say it’s cool. Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot.

The Online Ban – New Anti-Junk Food Legislation

The World Health Organisation is on the case with junk food advertising – that’s when you know it’s got bad. The WHO states that the food industry can play a significant role in reducing childhood obesity and one of the measures they suggest is practising responsible marketing.

The UK Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP) has listened and as of July 2017 online adverts for food and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar will be banned across children’s media. They will also ban adverts where 25% of under-16s make up the audience. This brings legislation in line with the broadcast rules of 2007. The CAP thinks this will lead to a major reduction in junk foods ads reaching children.

This is an encouraging and necessary step forward but it’s still not enough. Are there other ways we can put the brakes on massive profitable corporations when their tactics are so low? Coca-Cola have even been accused of influencing medical studies. Giving cash to conferences so journalists will highlight how a lack of exercise is instead responsible for obesity. Well, it is, but so are sugar-filled drinks.

What Can We Do to Tackle Junk Food Advertising?

Childhood obesity is preventable – fast food corporations have to bypass governments, schools and parents to reach children. But it seems they are managing exactly that. It appears we need a swift change in tactics.

What Parents Can Do

Parents can eat healthily at home, explain how bodies work, introduce the concept of advertising and reward eating healthy foods. I’m a big believer in consequences too – Youtube videos of very overweight individuals struggling to walk are big motivators for headstrong six year old boys. Too harsh you say? Not as harsh as losing a limb from preventable type 2 diabetes.

You can also now apply to join the Parents’ Jury from the Children’s Health Fund and give your views on food advertising via regular surveys.

How Schools Can Help

At sports day this year I witnessed overweight kids struggling to make it down the sprint track. I’m not slating schools because great work has been done with school dinners for example, but schools have a curriculum to follow that doesn’t allow for more food education.

There’s a new voluntary healthy rating scheme for primary schools and government are also ‘keen’ to celebrate the schools that demonstrate healthy approaches to obesity by running an annual competition. How about some funding so schools can run a lunchtime gardening club, take trips to pick your own farms, highlight bad food choices, explain advertising and reward healthy lunch boxes instead? Show them exactly what a burger is made from and they might not be so keen to eat it.

Government Responsibilities

Goliath junk food industries need to be tackled hard by governments. Governments are supposed to work for the good of the people. What good are they doing while the childhood obesity problem is gathering pace?

Perhaps a tax on junk food advertising and enforced cigarette-style warning labels would motivate a change in behaviour. The voluntary 20% sugar reduction on soft drinks tax starts in 2018. But what about a fat and salt tax too? Simply hoping a sugar tax will encourage the food and drinks industry to ‘play their part’ in making products with lower sugar content is pretty pathetic. Or do these big corporations pay for your publicity campaigns?

I’m a parent and I understand how much pressure there is from children who want junk foods and the sheer exhaustion of parents who just want some peace and give into bad food choices. It’s not easy but we must keep going.

So back off with your kid-targeted advertising, KFC. We’ve got the recipe for breadcrumb-rolled chicken breast followed by strawberries from the farmer’s market. And we’re not afraid to use them.

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