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04/29/2010

Will Taking the Happy Out of the Happy Meal Keep Kids from Getting Fat?

happy-meal.jpg

Well, at least one California county is trying. You have to give them that. In an effort to curb childhood obesity, Santa Clara county, California has banned toys from meals with over 485 calories, effectively fast food.

The rationale: this is an effort to make the overly salty, fatty, and generally non-nutritious meals less appealing to younger children. In other words, “ordinance breaks the link between unhealthy food and prizes.”

But will such an act achieve the ultimate goal of preventing our children from being overweight and obese?

I hardly think so. Not that I want to knock any effort made to stem the tide of childhood obesity in this country, but I think that the fast food industry has such a strangle hold on the minds (and tastebuds) of our youth today that legislators and parents are going to have to do more than take away the toys in a Happy Meal to make children stop craving drive-thru chicken nuggets and french fries.

As we learned earlier this week, it isn’t just that fast food is fun and easy, it’s made with an irresistible formula of (primarily) salt and fat and other high calorie, low nutrient “stuff” that make us crave it–irrationally–even when we know its bad for us.

Where our children are concerned by the time they are able to recognize shapes on a television screen they are bombarded by advertisements for all the major fast food chains that make these foods look like magical wonderlands of tasty delights and spend $3.0B per year marketing those foods JUST to children.

So yank those toys out of the children’s fast food meals all you want, but unless the TVs can be turned off as well and all other forms of fast food marketing to children can be curtailed, I think it will be hard to limit the role that fast food plays in the childhood obesity epidemic (which incidentally isn’t nearly as huge as everyone might suspect).

The magic bullet will be a combination of children eating less calorie dense foods prepared at home with an increase in physical activity. A message that no one wants to hear, but is in fact the only way that we will prevent a coming generation where one-third or more of our population of adults is overweight or obese.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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