If you’re a parent, you have a tough job. You always try to do the right thing for your kids, but sometimes outside forces stack the deck against you. Here’s an example: You want your kids to eat a healthy diet so that they grow up to have long, illness-free, productive lives; however, the food industry is working diligently to undermine your efforts. It’s difficult to combat the food industry. They have enormous resources which you, as a parent, probably don’t have, but knowing their tactics is a good place to start. 

There aren’t a lot of recent statistics on how the food industry markets to kids. Most of the studies are nearly a decade old, so those studies don’t even consider the increase in online and social media marketing that kids see every day. But let’s look at some statistics provided by the Prevention Institute

The Marketing

  • The food and beverage industry spend approximately $2 billion per year marketing to children.
  • The fast food industry spends more than $5 million every day marketing unhealthy foods to children.
  • Kids watch an average of over 10-16 food-related television ads every day (averaging 4,000 per year).
  • Nearly all (98 percent) of food advertisements viewed by children are for products that are high in fat, sugar or sodium. Most (79 percent) are low in fiber. 

The Effects

  • Nearly 40% of children’s diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats. 
  • Only 21% of youth age 6-19 eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
  • A mere 12% of grains consumed by children are whole.
  • One study found that when children were exposed to television content with food advertising, they consumed 45 percent more food than children exposed to content with non-food advertising.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids see about 40,000 ads per year across all media, and half of those ads are for food. Out of those 20,000 food ads—which is about 55 per day—less than 3% are for healthy foods. 

The ads kids see on TV make up only a small percent of the total food ads they’re exposed to, but those ads are very influential. Kids watching cartoons for 80 minutes every day will see more than 800 ads for fast food restaurants in a year. A 2013 report from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity showed that McDonald’s spends 2.7 times more to advertise its products than is spent by all fruit, vegetables, bottled water, and milk advertisers combined, and less than 1% of all kids’ meal combinations from fast food restaurants met recommended nutrition standards. You can download a summary of the report here.

In January, 2019, the University of Connecticut, Drexel University, and the University of Texas Health Science Center issued a report showing that the food industry targeted minorities in their ads for junk food. The report says that 86 percent of food advertising spent on African-American television programming and 82 percent of advertising on Spanish-language stations, were almost exclusively for fast food, candy, sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks. 

What Parents Can Do

What can be done to combat the onslaught of ads for sugary cereals, sugary beverages, sugary or high-fat snacks, and high-fat fast foods? 

The first step to ensure children have a healthy diet is to lead by example. Kids love to imitate adults, so the biggest step that parents can take in creating a healthy nutritional environment is to eat the right foods in front of children. Since parents can’t be at their children’s side 24-hours a day, a good example can be set at the family dinner table each night. Serve healthy foods at home and eat together as a family so that kids can see mom and dad enjoying fruits, vegetables, and beans. 

Five more positive tips include:

  • Praise choices that are healthy –  When children choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or low-fat dairy as a snack, let them know they’ve made the right choice.
  • Get kids involved in cooking – When kids help in the kitchen, they’re more likely to eat what they’ve helped to make. It also gives parents time to teach their children the benefits of healthy eating. 
  • Stock-up on healthy foods – Younger children can only eat what is in the house! Keep fruit visible and keep nuts or granola around on which to snack. 
  • Steer kids toward healthy options – If you only have healthful foods at home it will be easy to offer tortilla chips instead of potato chips or to redirect their attention away from candy and toward a sweet fruit like strawberries or mangoes.      
  • Don’t put restrictions on junk food – Nothing is more tempting to a child than something they feel is forbidden. Once a week, make a healthy pizza and let them know that moderation in eating junk is the key. 

Helen Sanders of Health Ambition says healthy afternoon snacks are another good way to keep kids on the right nutritional track. Since parents are often extremely busy, she emphasizes keeping the preparation to a minimum. Her recommendations include: An apple, Greek yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, sunflower seeds, avocados, and blueberries.   

Additionally, Parents magazine suggests avoiding ads whenever possible. With ad-blockers, DVRs and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, shielding your kids from ads is easier than it’s ever been. They also suggest talking to kids about the role of advertising, addressing specific ads whenever possible. Parents suggests 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?” 

The most important food tip is to view food as nutrition first.  Your children will appreciate your guidance as they get older and lead illness-free lives.