McDonald's is often blamed for making our children fat. Some groups are calling for Ronald McDonald's head -- or at least, the clown's retirement. Shareholders, meanwhile, asked the company during the recent annual meeting to assess its policy on childhood obesity.
McDonalds CEO Jim Skinner has responded by saying the company provides "many choices that fit within the balanced active lifestyle. “ (Translation: If you're not exercising, weight gain is your own fault.")
"Iit is up to their parents to choose,” Skinner said. “And it is their responsibility to do so.”
Of course it's a parent's responsibility to make good choices, says my guest blogger, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity and nutritional expert in Ottawa, who blogs at Weighty Matters. But can they?
Here's his take on the issue:
The fight health conscious parents face is of David versus the Goliath of Goliaths proportions, and that’s also assuming they even want the fight at all.
Frankly, many parents don’t, as it’s one heck of a fight. From television and internet advertising, fundraising and philanthropy tie-ins, direct mail, 'educational' campaigns, in-house playgrounds and an actual clown as a spokesperson, McDonald’s employs some of the country’s best and brightest marketing minds to help spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars persuading children to seek out the golden arches.
Yet, how many parents have a team of marketers actively working behind their scenes to provide them with the spin they require to promote home cooked meals bereft of clowns, playgrounds, toys with dinner, and soft-serve ice cream?
Moreover, there are only so many parental 'nos' that will carry weight, and many parents, when confronted with children responding to the McDonald’s marketing machine, may not want to trade in their precious and limited 'no' cards on a Happy Meal, and a night off cooking and fighting with their kids to eat their vegetables.
And that’s just for McDonald’s.
Predatory advertising that targets our children is everywhere. Cartoon character festooned cereal boxes are placed strategically at children’s eye levels on supermarket shelves; online adver-gaming draws them into immersive 15 to 30 minute long interactive commercials; and their schools partner up with fast food restaurants to sponsor such things as “spirit weeks."
The result of which is our children are continually faced with an increasingly sophisticated, and never ending onslaught, of enticements for highly processed, sugary profit drivers.
And again, the argument put forth on how to protect them from all of these traps and more? Parents can just say 'no.'
'No' to pizza days at school. 'No' to chocolate milk as part of the school lunch program. 'No' to the freezies handed out after soccer practice. 'No' to the meal and the co-branded Disney toy that was advertised on television. 'No' to the sugary cereal with the decoder ring on the bottom.
That sure is a lot of "no's."
But what of parents who don’t say 'no.' Some may not due simply due to 'no' fatigue, while others may not even see the need for 'no.' Perhaps as a consequence of tremendous time or financial pressures, or their own distracting medical issues, or deceptive advertising that suggests health benefits to bowls of sugary cereals, or perhaps simply as a consequence of not believing or understanding why it matters, there is a huge swath of parents don’t see value in the parental junk food “no”.
As an increasingly unhealthy society, the question we need to urgently wrestle with is should a non-uniformly delivered parental “no” be our sole line of defense against the incredibly aggressive marketing of unhealthy food to our children?
According to a 2009 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Yale Rudd Center, the fast food industry spends more than $4 billion annually on advertising, leading the average preschooler to see 2.8 daily fast food TV ads, children to see 3.5; and teens to see 4.7.
Looking at McDonald’s online presence as an example, the report found McDonald’s 13 websites alone received 659,000 unique child visitors each month, and those numbers preceded McDonald’s current television campaign with Ronald explicitly inviting children to visit and play with him online.
According to that same 2009 report, forty percent of parents reported that their child asks to go to McDonald's at least once a week; 15% of preschoolers ask to go every day.
And again, that’s just for McDonald’s.
In the context of this discussion, it’s important too, to remember the state of the nation. Since 2001 there has been a 50 percent increase in the use of cholesterol lowering drugs for 10-19 year olds, a 24 percent increase in their use of blood pressure medications, and children under the age of 10 are now regularly being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a type of diabetes that when I went to medical school in the mid 1990s, was still being referred to as “adult onset”.
And yet our only call to action is the condescension that parents can just say no?
While I don't think junk food can, or even should, be legislated out of existence, I think it’s fairly safe to say that the parental “no” is not an effective means of defense.
Whether it’s by means of true corporate social responsibility and meaningful and genuine childhood advertising reforms, or through legislative efforts, given the flood of advertising that rushes at our kids from almost the instant they learn to speak, someone needs to retire Ronald, and parents understandably need some real, formative, help, as do folks who believe or suggest that a parental “no” is going to be enough to turn this dangerous tide.
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff is the founder and Medical Director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, dedicated to the (nonsurgical) treatment of overweight and obesity since 2004.