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The Best Way to Reduce Childhood Obesity

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In a move designed to fend off potential litigation and possible state and federal advertising regulations, eleven of the nation's food and beverage companies have come up with their own guidelines regarding junk food advertising aimed at children under 12. According to the Los Angels Times, the voluntary ban includes junking ads for "candy bars, soda pop, and sugar-laden cereals, including such brands as Trix – famously advertised for decades as being 'for kids.'"

While the pledges from companies such as General Mills, McDonalds, Pepsi, and Kraft may come as a welcome relief to parents tired of their children's constant demands for sugary treats, it will do nothing to decrease the number of the nation's overweight and obese children.

Numerous studies have shown that a bigger contributor to childhood obesity isn't the amount of junk food advertisements children are exposed to, but the amount of television they watch. One 2003 study concluded that children who watch three or more hours of television a day are 50 percent more likely to be obese than kids who watch fewer than two hours and that "more than 60% of overweight incidents can be linked to excess TV viewing." Another found that in "12- to 17-year-old adolescents, the prevalence of obesity increased by 2% for each additional hour of television viewed."

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, when you include videos, DVD's, and other prerecorded shows, children watch about four hours of television a day. Times that by seven days a week and that means kids, on average, are spending slightly more than an entire day in front of the boob tube. The amount of television viewed shouldn't come as a complete surprise considering the average home now has more televisions (2.73) than people (2.55) and one third of children as young as six have a television in their bedroom.

With the copious amounts of television being watched in American households, is it any wonder kids are becoming fat?

The solution to the growing obesity problem doesn't involve government advertising regulations or lawsuits against the junk food companies but, quite simply, better parenting.

In too many households television has become the babysitter, entertainer, and parent. It's become the easy way to keep them entertained, distracted, and out of a mom or dad's way for a couple hours. And while letting children watch an occasional DVD or cartoon in order to accomplish housework or other tasks may be at times necessary, letting children watch hours upon hours of television every day is simply irresponsible.

Turning off the television may at first invoke weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth from kids used to doing nothing else but staring at a screen with blank expressions, but being a parent often involves telling their children "no" and, if necessary, providing alterative activities.

Sadly, most kids probably get their television viewing habits from their parents. Those who watch a lot of television are probably most likely to have parents who also watch a lot of television. Part of getting kids off the couch and involved in more physical and meaningful activities may include getting their television-addicted parents doing something as well.

The results of a decrease in television viewing can be very rewarding. Not only may kids (and adults) shed a few pounds but their school work might improve and family relationships become stronger.

I can defiantly attest to the latter. Even though I occasionally enjoy watching programs on our one TV (yes, we only have one), at the end of the day I've always found the time better spent with my wife and kids and have never regretted missing a sporting event or news program to spend time with them.

Curbing the number of obese or overweight children doesn't require government regulation or even self-regulation from the food and beverage industry (though the latter is appreciated). The solution begins at home with parents who can turn off the TV, remove it from their child's room, monitor what their children are eating, and involve their kids in more engaging, stimulating, and ultimately more rewarding activities.

The result could change families and a nation for the better.

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About Abel Keogh

  • Agree with everything you said. Food advertising IS NOT causing obesity. It is not the responsibility of packaged goods and beverage companies to monitor the caloric intake of our children – that is the responsibility of parents (despite our hectic lifestyles). I wrote about this very subject in my latest blog and invite you to visit it when you get a chance. Thanks for writing about this very important, but controversial issue.

    In good health,
    Phil Christian

  • I couldn’t agree more with the content and spirit of your article. Good one. HH

  • Splat

    I personally agree, but what about kids with a much higher metabolism? The unfairness that one kid can eat a ton and sit down in front of a T and not gain a single pound while another can eat a lot and do the same yet gain weight?

  • great item…kids with slower metabolisms have even more reason to get out and be active…and stats reveal that the amount of those with real metabolic issues are at a scant minimum especially in regard to the obesity epidemic.

  • People have been blaming television for every ill that has befallen mankind since the first program was broadcast.

    While unlimited TV viewing is of course, a stupid way for any household to bring up kids, there are a lot of other issues here that were not discussed.

    My day job involves driving around all over a 5 city radius. I rarely see any children playing outside these days, even in their own yards, let alone on the sidewalks or even in the parks.

    Working parents, advanced media communication of any crime against children and the convenience of not only TV but computers and cell phones have produced a nation of stay-at-home and isolated children. People these days are scared to let their children play outside. They believe there are perverts on every block just waiting for the opportunity to grab their children and torture them in every way possible before killing them and dumping their remains.

    The actual amount of crime is probably disproportionate to the amount of hype and scare-tactics, but what parent is going to take the chance or be labeled as neglectful by sending little Johnnie or little Mary 2 houses away to play, or to go with friends on a bike ride to the local park?

    The American diet has gone nuts. The propensity to buy all sorts of convenience foods has snowballed to an epidemic. So many families don’t cook these days, no wonder there’s an issue. Snacks have always been around, but they’re now consumed in amounts equal to the effects of global warming.

    And the schools. Don’t get me started. In an effort to push academic scores higher and stop the critics in their tracks, all the arts and sports programs have been cut back, curtailed or completely eliminated. Instead of giving kids other, wonderful options to broaden their horizons and give them exercise (you don’t have to play football to get up and go–try marching band, flags, etc.) Take them bowling for goodness sake, if they can’t run!

    Give them music, give them painting and drawing. Give them creativeness and even, yes, home economics so they can learn to cook their own nutritious meals and completely shock their families. There’s no reason why a 12 year old can’t make a big salad for dinner and surprise parents who are exhausted from a long day at work. Then they can all get out and WALK after dinner.

    I could go on, but this is turning into an article.

  • Egbert Sousé

    How about just curbing the number of children?

  • My wife and I were discussing this just last night. She is of the opinion that because some children get bullied in gym means that the death of Physical Education in schools is no bad thing. I disagree, because, true enough, some kids will be bullied, but that is life. If it didn’t happen in gym class, it would happen elsewhere. Secondly, P.E. has never been more vital. In the days of yore, you could argue that kids got plenty of exercise after school, which was true. Not anymore. Parents lock their kids indoors and are content to have them sit in front of the TV or computer and snack on a box of Ho-Hos, secure in the knowledge that they’re safe. Hell, the parents themselves may have no clue as to how to live healthily. So, kids get no exercise whatsoever and eat “food” (junk food and fast food) that their parents are content to feed them just to shut them up. And then we worry about why there’s so many fat children nowadays.

    I say, leave plenty of money in school budgets for P.E. classes. They’re needed more than ever these days.

  • Zedd


    While I agree that the reason cause for childhood obesity should not be placed on the shoulders of advertisers, I also don’t think that the cause is simply TV watching only.

    I think that a large part of the problem is parents buying bad food for their kids and not requiring that they eat balanced meals.

    The fact that parents feel helpless to the requests of their kids for junk (all sorts of junk) is the real problem. Allowing their kids to watch TV all day is a symptom of this greater problem. Parents are afraid to say “NO” to their kids. Parents feel as if their children deserve Disneyland or some form of it everyday. From video games to cartoons, sugary snacks and fast food, parents feel as if they must provide some form of hyped up experience on a daily bases, else they will loose the love of their children. I think that that is the real contributor to the obesity of our children.

    Another is that the parents are fat too.

  • Clavos

    “Parents are afraid to say “NO” to their kids.”

    Quoted for Truth.

    And it extends to much more than just the food they eat; many parents have nearly completely abdicated their parental role, allowing the schools (or much worse, the streets) to stand in loco parentis.

  • Abel, thanks for tackling this topic! I have to agree with some of your readers, though: The problem isn’t TV alone (although that’s certainly a contributor). As Heather points out, children aren’t playing outside anymore — the one place they’re likely to burn the most calories. And as she mentions, arts and sports programs are being cut in the schools.

    But that’s not all: PE and recess are also going the way of the dinosaurs in favor of more “academic” time. It’s complete nonsense considering the amount of research we have showing that children who get more physical activity actually do BETTER in school!

    Mark, while I understand where your wife is coming from (I hated PE when I was in school!), I agree with you that PE has never been more vital. But rather than argue that bullying is OK in PE because it’s part of life, I’d like to make the point that just because some children have difficulty with reading (or suffer when asked to read aloud in class), that doesn’t mean we should eliminate reading from the curriculum. If bullying is a problem in PE or at recess, we fix the problem of bullying; we don’t eliminate all the good parts of PE and recess! (It’s one of those “throwing baby out with the bath water” things.)

    As a children’s physical activity specialist for the past 27 years, I’ve watched children become less and less active…and more and more uncoordinated, overweight, unhealthy, and unhappy. Yes, we have to limit their TV time. But we also have to look at ALL the ways in which children are sedentary — because only by addressing all the issues can we begin to turn this terrifying crisis around.

    Yours in movement,

  • Dr Dreadful

    I’m in agreement with Heather and Zedd on this one. The issue is way more complex than Abel makes out. He correctly identifies television viewing as a major factor in childhood obesity, but there is a strange disconnect in his logic: where does he think kids are seeing all this junk food advertising? That’s right: TV!

    Greg Critser in his book Fat Land does an excellent job of tracing the history of America’s expanding waistline and the economic, commercial and social reasons behind it. I’d highly recommend it for anyone wishing to get a grasp on what the hell happened and the possible way forward.

  • A Khan

    Hello Parents,

    Recent UK researchers studying childhood lifestyles and Obesity found that childhood obesity is fixed by the age of five before children reach school. A lot of government incentives are allocated in the school environment to address the global obesity epidemic with little concentration in the home environment. Researchers believe that more initiatives at children’s home environment should be taken to prevent the global childhood obesity problem.

    I am an MAsters student conducting resaerch on child lifestyle and obesity. I am currently undertaking a research project on how the home environement influences children to live a certain lifestyle now and in the future. and i would be grateful if you could answer the following questions to assist my research.

    I am happy to provide you a copy of the research document once i have completed it.

    Please [Personal contact info deleted] feel free to post any thoughts.

    many thanks in advance.

    A Khan

    Parent Interview Prompt.
    (Children aged 0-5yrs)

    How important is a physically active lifestyle for you?
    If important why?
    If not important why?

    What type of activity do you normally participate in?
    With whom?

    How long ago and what prompted your active lifestyle?
    Describe your child’s normal daily routine and how does his differ from weekends when you and/or your partner are at home?

    During weekdays who normally looks after your child and what does your child normally do in terms of how time is spent during the day?

    How much time does your child spend in front of the TV and what is his favorite tv, video, DVD show?

    Describe your child’s daily dietary routine, who cooks the meals(if they are cooked) and who makes the decision on what your child wants to eat?
    Describe how you encourage healthy eating and habits?

    How much impact do you think your lifestyle has on your child lifestyle choice?
    How does this reflect with how active your child is, where and what he/she play with?

    As a parent how much impact do you think early childhood has on lifestyle in adulthood?
    Have you tried introducing any healthy habits to your child, if so, What barriers have you encountered with your child and why? (Learn about healthy lifestyle when reach school?)

    When you come home after work what do you normally do?

    How does this reflect on what your child is doing?

    Is there anything you do different ” either physically or intellectually ” (that you never used to do before your child was born) in your homes environment to help your child start an active lifestyle?

    Looking back into your childhood is there anything you would do differently in childhood- either physically or mentally (that you never did) in your home environment to start and active lifestyle

    What type of toys does your child normally like to play with?
    What is your child’s favorite toy?

    What is your child favorite past time activity and why do you think this is?

    Describe what kinds of activities is encouraged for your child to keep him/her occupied And how does your child typically respond to these activities?
    Is snacking on food at the same time associated with this?

    I’m interested if you can think of any toys or activities that have influenced your child to act in a certain way that he/she never used to do before or only does this when playing with a certain toy/activity?

    Finally…….Is there anything else you would like to share with me?

  • Obesity Strikes

    abel, really , i think that you are so right and i admire your perfectness in this article but your reasons are very true and i think that if parents encouraged there children in not watching tv so much this would end.

  • Jacelyn Cecot

    Thanks for the marvelous posting! I genuinely enjoyed reading it, you could be a great author.I will always bookmark your blog and definitely will come back later on. I want to encourage one to continue your great job, have a nice afternoon!

  • claro

    I am agree with clavos.

    “Parents are afraid to say “NO” to their kids.”

  • Ted

    I personally agree, but what about kids with a much higher metabolism? T