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."
What should parents do?
The AAP has a few other suggestions for parents. Keep TVs and computers out of kids' bedrooms. That makes it easier to regulate how much time they spend in front of the screen. The AAP recommends limiting screen time to no more than two hours a day, and not right before bed.
Ayoob explains, "If kids aren't allowed to sit in front of a TV for hours, they will have to do something else. Six hours of screen time is equal to six hours of bed rest. Obviously, that's not something that we recommend for kids." Dr. Strasburger also says parents should watch TV with their kids, so they can teach them about advertising and healthy eating habits, despite what they see in the ads.
"When kids spend seven hours a day watching television or on the computer, it's time to think about how that influences them," Strasburger says, "and how we can do the best in homes and at an institutional level to give our kids the best chance in life."