Fast Food Advertising is On the Rise -- With a Focus on Minority Youth -- While Kids Continue to Grow Fatter. What's Wrong With This Picture?

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It's definitely not news that America's children have an obesity problem and that it's largely due to fast food and junk/snack foods—nor is it a surprise that fast food restaurants use aggressive and targeted marketing campaigns.

Just who gets targeted and what tactics are used, however, are often overlooked. The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale put out a study late last year, Fast Food FACTS, that compiles some of the most staggering points about these and other fast food issues. Here are some of the highlights:

Fast food marketing targets minority youth

  • McDonald's was responsible for 1/4 of young people's exposure to Spanish-language fast food advertising in 2009.

  • African American children and teens saw at least 50 percent more fast food TV ads than white youth—75 percent more for McDonald's and KFC in particular.

Capturing kids where they spend the most time: online

  • McDonald's targets children as young as two, and both it and Burger King have 60 to 100 pages of "advergames" and virtual worlds that actively (mentally, not physically) engage children.

  • In Australia, fast food chains have started sending vouchers for free food directly to kids under 12, and Slashfood points out that wouldn't be unthinkable or impossible for fast food chains to do the same in the U.S. as well.

Little improvement in the nutrition at fast food restaurants

  • Despite increasing pressure to provide healthier options and laws in some places requiring clear menu labeling, the study found that at the average fast food restaurant, five percent or less of lunch or dinner main dishes and breakfast items met the nutritional criteria.
  • "Just 12 of 3,039 possible kids' meal combinations met nutrition criteria for preschoolers; 15 met nutrition criteria for older children."

Childhood obesity rates have tripled since 1980; Michelle Obama has taken the issue on for a reason.

Policy can certainly be stronger. The Public Health Law Center suggests the following options as places to start:

Self-regulation; limiting toy giveaways with fast foods; pricing strategies, such as increased taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and foods; and maximizing the positive role the media can play in addressing the childhood obesity problem, such as increasing media messages promoting fitness and sound nutrition.

Lessons about food and healthy habits need to be strongest, however, in the home—and they need to be consistent. Limited legislative measures have passed already, on the national level to improve nutrition in schools and on the local level to regulate how fast food restaurants can market their product, including a ban on toys in happy meals. But they can only go so far.

The majority of fast food advertising money* (86 percent) is spent on television ads, and one out of every four meals in the U.S. is eaten in front of a TV, computer, smartphone, etc.

Cook more, and get out from behind the TV

Things like teaching your kids to cook, getting them onto a farm or into a garden, and cooking more meals with vegetables—using flavors and combinations that kids like, so they don't develop a lifelong hatred for all things green—are all ways to root your kids in a healthy lifestyle.

Forty percent of parents say their children ask to go to McDonald's at least once a week—15 percent of preschoolers ask every day, according to FACTS. But if they're enjoying well-cooked meals at home and food is an intentional sit-down experience, and McDonald's stops being an option in their minds, they're more likely to stop asking to go.

Perhaps above everything else, making healthy choices yourself is crucial to developing good habits in your children. You're their most important role model and if you eat healthily, they will follow.

*The industry gets $2 billion in tax breaks for the money it spends on marketing to kids, though some argue that's an unfair way to look at it because it's part of a federal tax code that allows companies generally to deduct "reasonable and necessary" marketing and advertising expenses.

More on kids and fast food
Fast Food Kid's Meals Have Adult-Sized Fat, Calories and Salt
Lessons on Obesity from Michelle Obama's Historic Summit
Dear Parents of America: Advice from Ann Cooper, Renegade Lunch Lady, to Improve Your Child's Nutrition
Obesity, Chemical Exposure Causing Some Girls to Hit Puberty at Age 7
More on healthy school lunches
7 Strategies for Packing a Healthy, Green School Lunch
Five Cool Programs Making School Lunch Better
The House Finally Passes The Child Nutrition Act
The 5 Weirdest Policies That Make School Lunches Unhealthy

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