Eating habits have changed drastically and rapidly over the years. Today, the number of overweight or obese children and adults in the population has increased while the numbers of lifestyle-related deaths have also increased. As Webb and Whitney (2008) argue, consumers today value convenience so highly that they are willing to spend over half of their food budget on meals that require little or no preparation. They regularly eat out, bring home ready-to-eat meals, or have food delivered. This trend is mainly influenced by the media which promotes such behaviors through commercials and popular programs and movies.
The media is a major source of information and misinformation on nutritional sources. The media through advertising promotes unhealthy foods rich in sugars, fat, salt as the ideal food choices. According to Fettling, members of the public are regularly bombarded by messages about food in all forms of media: television, the internet, radio, newspapers, and magazines. Many of these messages revolve around food manufacturers marketing their products in the hope that the public will buy them. The manufacturers use very clever techniques such as jingles and claims about a food's special properties. Manufacturers spend a lot of money on advertising because it is a very effective influence on the food choices of viewers (Fettling 2005, 36). The effect of this advertising is very damaging on children and teenagers. This is firstly because children to do not understand that advertising is not necessarily meant to market a good product but might, instead, be intended for pursuing people to buy a product that has proved difficult to sell. New born babies too have not been spared by the media craze. For instance, as Contento (2010) argues, the media fosters the perception that formula feeding is the norm whereas breastfeeding is not. Instead, women's breasts are used to advertise lingerie, alcohol or perfume among others
Television is, particularly, responsible for majority of the unhealthy eating habits today. Television, according to Samour and King (2011), is the primary media influence on children of all ages. It has been estimated that by the time the average child in the United States graduates from high school, he or she will have watched about 15,000 hours of television, compared with spending, 11,000 hours in the classroom. These hours in front of the television are made significant to eating habits by the number of food commercials aired within the time. As Samour and King argue, the average child watches more than 500 food references per week on television, and 20% of commercials during children's programming are related to food. Additionally, food products are advertised via cross-promotions with programs and characters and through fast-food restaurant promotions. The food items usually marketed to young audiences include sweetened cereals, fast food, snack foods, and candy, which are all foods high in sugar, fat and salt (Samour and King 2011).
The advertisement messages, as Samour and King (2011) argue, are not based on nutrition but on an emotional/psychological appeal - fun gives you energy, yummy taste. Younger children generally cannot discriminate between the regular program and advertisement messages, frequently giving more attention to the latter due to their rapid, attention-getting pace (Samour and King 2011). Advertising has also been linked to a shocking global statistic. As Pfund (2011) argues, one effect associated with food marketing, is a considerable increase in obesity in developed countries during the last two decades. Samour and King (2011) add that television viewing and other types of "screen time" have been suggested as factors in the rising obesity rates among children and teenagers in the United States. They argue that television watching and low levels of physical activity are associated with obesity and overweight, and television viewing has been inversely linked with intake of vegetables and fruits.
Foods remembered from media, particularly television, commercials are often requested by children. It's been concluded that food commercials promote food purchase requests by children to parents, have an impact on children's product and brand preferences, and affect consumption behavior. Additionally, unhealthy eating habits and sedentary behaviors shaped during childhood and adolescence may be carried into young adulthood ad continued into pregnancy (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council 2009). Further research has also shown that children are given approximately 50 percent of the foods they request their parents for.
However, the media can also influence food choices positively, particularly if the information being provided is accurate and is promoting healthy food choices. For instance, numerous breakfast cereal commercials promote the benefits of a healthy, well-balanced breakfast (Fettling 2005) Breakfast cereals are among the most frequently remembered food advertisement. If advertising breakfast cereals encourage its consumption this is likely to have a beneficial effect on the diet, as breakfast cereals generally have low concentrations of fat and are consumed with milk (Pfund 2011). Additionally, the media can be used to convey consumer information and public health messages, such as those regarding youth smoking (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council 2009).
A few broadcasters, such as Disney, deserve commendation for including healthier messages into their programming for children. Additionally, some marketers are voluntarily taking steps to counter the flood of television commercials for unhealthy foods. For instance, in November NNNNN2006, ten of the most influential food and beverage companies, including McDonald's, Kellogg's, and General Mills, promised that half of their advertising directed to children would promote healthier food and encourage more active lifestyles. Earlier, Kraft foods promised to conform their advertising to good nutritional standards (Crouse 2011)
Such cooperation by food manufacturers is vital in ensuring a turnaround in the number of advertising for products that provide poor nutrition to children. To date, however, positive effects are falling short. Commercials continue to overpower the educational and informational broadcasting that benefits children, and the positive efforts have not limited the overwhelming amount of advertising that can have a negative influence on children's choices of food. (Crouse 2011)
Thus, although some media channels have limited unhealthy food marketing during children programming and others increased the advertising of healthy foods, such as cereals, the advertisement of junk food still dominates. As Fettling (2005) argues, overall, most of the foods marketed are highly processed foods that contain large amounts of added salt, sugar and fat. The effect of healthy food advertising has also not been very significant. As the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (2009) reports, social marketing programs that use the media to promote physical activity or healthy diet in adults, whether as part of a mass media-focused effort or a broader multi-component campaign, tend to produce mixed results.
Therefore, the influence of the media on food choices is not good. The media has directly influenced the food choices of children who, usually, show preference for brands advertised during children programming on television. Despite some attempts to counter this effect by reducing unhealthy food adverts and sometimes replacing them with healthy food adverts, thethe impact of the healthy food adverts has been negligible. Action is, therefore, required to regulate commercials on unhealthy foods to prevent the increasing cases of obesity and overweight, particularly, in developed nations.
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Crouse, Janice Shaw. Children at Risk: The Precarious State of Children's Well-being in America. Washington D.C: Transaction Publishers, 2011.
Frances Sizer Webb, and Ellie Whitney, Nutrition: Concepts and Controversies, volume 10 (Cengage Learning, 2008), 12.
Fettling, M. Excel Revise in a Month VCE, Health and Human Development.
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Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. Weight Gain During Pregnancy: Reexamining the Guidelines. National Academies Press, 2009.
Marotz, Lynn R. Health, Safety, and Nutrition for the Young Child. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011.
Pfund, Franziska. Advertising to Children. Norderstedt: GRIN Verlag, 2011.
Samour, Patricia Queen, and King, Kathy. Pediatric Nutrition. Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2011.
Webb, Frances Sizer, and Whitney, Ellie. Nutrition: Concepts and Controversies, volume 10. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2008.