Parents in survey take responsibility for childhood obesity

Kids help with school breakfast in Los Angeles. The food offered in schools is one aspect of eating that parents are concerned about.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Sixty percent of the cause of the rise in childhood obesity rests with the parents, according to parents who took a Yale survey about food marketing. The parents assigned the rest of the cause to an unhealthy food environment.

Parents buy an estimated $58 billion in food and beverages annually, so the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity wanted to know what they thought about marketing to children. It conducted an online survey of 2,454 parents of children ages 2 to 17 in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Their average income was $59,000, and most of them had at least some college education.

The parents cited as the top obstacles to ensuring healthy eating habits: expense (of healthy and organic foods), easy access (to fast food, snack foods and unhealthy food in schools), children’s media usage and advertising. They also said they gave in to their kids’ requests and were not always good role models for eating.


Asked what foods their kids have seen or heard marketing about, fast food was in the top two all three years. Soda, which some public officials say bears a big responsibility for obesity, came in third each year.

The parents expressed moderate concern (6.6 to 7.9 on a scale of 10) about most youth-oriented media issues. Their concerns, in order of importance: sexual permissiveness, materialism, violence, too-thin models. In the middle of the list were “encourages children to want/buy products,” marketing of junk food to children and encouragement of bad eating habits. Tobacco and alcohol got similar scores.

“Food marketing to children isn’t exactly the foremost thing on parents’ minds,” said Elaine Kalish, vice president and director for children’s food and beverage advertising at the Better Business Bureau.

In this report and others, Rudd Center officials have said the food industry could do more to ensure healthful diets for kids.

“The food industry has responded to these concerns with self-regulatory pledges that have produced some small changes, but questionable improvement,” the report says.

The effort is working, countered Kalish.

Before the food industry established the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in 2006, many cereals for children had 15 or 16 grams of sugar per serving, she said in a telephone interview. In a report the initiative recently released, it said the majority of such cereals now have no more than 10 grams.


“I’m certainly not saying there isn’t room for further improvement,” Kalish said, but she said she sees the effort moving in the right direction.

The Rudd report notes that child-targeted cereals still have 57% more sugar and 52% less fiber than cereals marketed to adults.

Sodas are not advertised on children’s shows, but children may see soda ads if they watch programs not made for them -- “American Idol,” for instance.

Asked what they would like to see, more than 72% of parents supported stronger school lunch standards, stronger standards for all food sold at school and healthful food in school vending machines. Fifty-seven percent supported no advertising at all on TV to children under 8.

The report breaks down the responses in many ways. It can be seen in full at the Rudd Center’s website.

The report follows a call from the White House in 2010 for a “food marketing environment that supports, rather than undermines, the efforts of parents and other caregivers to encourage healthy eating among children and prevent obesity.”

It noted that in 2011, adolescents saw an average of 16.2 food ads on television a day and children ages 2 to 11 saw 12.8. On top of that, kids are marketed to through schools, sports sponsorships and other events, and websites and other digital media, the report says.

Less than 1% of the TV ads were for fruit and vegetables, the report says, adding, “Substantial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages has helped to fuel poor diet and rising obesity rates among youth in the United States and around the world.”

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