Childhood obesity has become an epidemic in America – with 17 percent of children aged 2 to 19 obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That's more than three times as many as in 1980.
That huge increase has families, doctors and the government looking for ways to curb the problem. A report released Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics has a new suggestion: ban companies from advertising junk food during children's television programs.
The AAP has long called for parents to put their kids on a "media diet." Studies have shown that watching TV or surfing the Internet displaces more physical, healthy pursuits, and people tend to snack more on junk foods with low nutritional value when they're in front of the TV. Recent research also shows screen time interferes with kids' sleep, itself a risk factor for obesity.
Now the organization is going a step further by calling on Congress to ban fast food and junk food ads during shows directed at kids.
Dr. Victor Strasburger, the pediatrician who authored the statement, says it's "time for Congress to man up against the food industry," by instituting a ban. He explains that years of studies have shown that kids are psychologically defenseless against advertising, that they don't understand the selling intent of ads, and that the current voluntary regulations aren't enough.
"Children see thousands of food ads a year on TV in this country. How fair is that to our kids? Do we want our children and teenagers to grow up healthy? Then we need to stop advertising unhealthy foods to them," Strasburger said. He says the ads for junk food contribute to kids developing poor eating habits in childhood and later in life.
Keith Ayoob, a pediatric nutritionist and director of the Nutrition Clinic at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine says a ban on fast food advertising might happen, but it probably won't make much of a difference: "There was kids' TV before there was an obesity crisis. They advertised sweet, high calorie food for kids, but nobody cared until obesity became an epidemic."
Ayoob also questions how the government will determine what foods and companies would not be allowed to advertise if ads for junk food were banned. "It's not like it's tobacco. It's food."
Dr. Strasburger says a ban on junk food advertising to kids isn't the only and final solution, and TV itself isn't to blame for the obesity epidemic. Still, he says, the "least healthy foods are being advertised on television most heavily to our kids. It's a contributing factor we can easily do something about."