The Scoop on Food

How Junk Food Advertising Harms Kids

Ads for junk food targeted to children are everywhere. Here's how it's hurting kids—and what you can do.

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I don't know about you, but I vividly remember watching commercials for sugary cereals, fruit punch, and candy during Saturday morning cartoons when I was growing up. My husband and I still occasionally sing commercial jingles for some kind of snack chip or chewing gum from our childhood, much to the confusion (and probably embarrassment!) of our kids.

But even though those jingles and commercials still hold nostalgic appeal to me, I'm worried about junk food ads when it comes to my kids. That's because these days, marketers have so many more ways to find and target kids—well beyond Saturday morning cartoons—like video games, websites, banner ads, and product placements in movies, shows, and online games.

Now, recent research reveals that junk food advertising actually affects children's food intake. A research review from McMaster University in Ontario found that children's caloric intake increased during and immediately after kids were exposed to ads for unhealthy foods. Children who saw a lot of ads for junk also showed a higher preference for those kinds of foods and drinks.

Child-targeted marketing for unhealthy foods is particularly worrisome for young children. The researchers say that kids age 8 and younger may be more susceptible to the effects seen in the study. Even more troubling are the effects on toddlers and preschoolers, who can recognize cartoon characters in commercials and on packages but don't understand the concept of advertisements or that the ads are any different than TV shows. They simply see their favorite characters—and want to be just like them.

Ads for low-nutrient, high-calorie foods and drinks make up the majority of advertising targeted to kids, say the researchers. Companies spend billions of dollars promoting fast food, sugary cereal, chips, and soda to kids (while ads for fruits, vegetables, or healhty food in general are extremely rare). So what can you do to protect your kids? Here's a good place to start:

Limit screen time. The less time kids have in front of TVs, computers, and tablets, the less time they'll be available to advertisers.

Avoid ads when possible. That's become a lot easier, now that so many people can skip past commercials in DVR-ed programs and use services like Netflix to watch shows. Install ad-blocking software on your computers and tablets. Keeping tabs on what your kids are watching and doing is important too. Watch out for "advergames", online or offline games targeted to kids that are actually advertisements for products.

Talk to your kids about advertising. As kids get older, they become savvier about marketing and the intent behind it (researchers say children can distinguish between program content and advertisements by about age 7 or 8). I talk to my kids about what ads are trying to tell them and about how the messages can be downright bogus. Questions like "Do you think sports drinks will make you a better athlete?" and "Do you think these Olympic athletes actually eat a lot of fast food?" have started really good conversations in our house!

How do YOU feel about junk food ads aimed at kids?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.