A recently published study (the journal Speech Communication) by U. of Illinois communication professor Kristen Harrison caught my eye. She studied children's understanding of what foods would help make them healthy (and not just slim and trim), and the role television marketing plays in that understanding. Children's diets and health have made banner headlines in teh past coupe of years, as child obesity has been increasing steadily over the past decade, and studies such as this should help parents and educators decide on good strategies to get a child's awareness and healthy eating habits established.
The study found that television has largely stopped touting foods that are rich in nutrients, and rather focus on what ingredients a product does not have, such as fat or carbohydrates. Many children as well as parents have begun to think that, because of the emphasis on obesity, a skinny kid is equated to a healthy kid, when in fact some skinny kids may actually be malnourished. As is typical, a balance is needed and the study shows that there are severe misunderstandings in actual nutritional value of foods among many children. What's more, Harrison found correlations between a child's weight and their understanding (or lack thereof) of nutrition. For example, heavy kids who watch a lot of TV (her study included a panel of 134 1st-3rd graders, who averaged 28 hours of television viewing per week) are more likely to to think Diet Coke is healthier than orange juice, because I suspect, they have been exposed to diets by the adults in their lives. They also think fat-free ice cream is healthier than cottage cheese. Harrison also discovered that in nutritional reasoning, where children were interviewed and had to explain their answers, the more TV the children watched, the worse their nutritional reasoning. One example is the kid who says a particular food is not healthy because "his sister hates it," rather than any legitimate reason such as it is a fatty food or because parents said it was not healthy.
In the end, this study shows that parents need to be the main line of defense when it comes to a child's health. Limiting television viewing and the number of commercials children watch should help according to these results, and paying attention to pediatricians and public service announcements about what a truly healthy diet looks like is essential. Schools do need to pay attention to what is served in cafeterias, and this is happening at an accelerated rate; many schools in my area are replacing soda machines with juice and other healther drinks, and healthier snacks have begun to appear in vending machines in a number of schools, replacing potato chips and some candy bars. These are steps in the right direction, but it is a major challenge because of the sophisticated marketing various companies now use to hook the largest number of youngsters on their products.