By how much would limiting TV food advertising reduce childhood obesity?
This is the question researchers from Netherlands and Australia asked in their recent article published in the European Journal of Public Health. TV food advertising has attracted considerable public scrutiny, especially from experts in nutrition and public health. There is a popular belief that food advertising plays a big role in influencing food choices and brand awareness among young kids. As a result, kids get hooked on processed food and snacks full of fat, salt and sugar. Clearly, this could be one reason why we have a rapidly rising rate of childhood obesity believe most experts.
Beliefs and opinions are common, but thoughtful scientific inquiry to support them is rare. That is why I found this article interesting because it tackles this tricky problem through a good scientific approach. The researchers candidly acknowledge that the effect of advertising is difficult to study in a direct way. In fact they did not find a single study which quantified the effect of advertising and body weight in a realistic setting. Instead, they looked at changes in the total energy intake due to TV advertising based on a single study from 1983, which concluded that an extra 25 minutes/week of exposure to TV advertisements would cause a child to eat one extra snack which would increase his energy intake by 1.4%.
This is a very small effect. The researchers then decided to set up an expert panel of academics and asked them to complete a questionnaire to estimate the effect of TV advertising on energy intake and effect of energy intake on BMI. Surprisingly, they got a very poor response rate – only 8 out of 33 completed their questionnaires. As a result, there was considerable bias and uncertainty in the data.
Bottom line, they came to the following conclusions:
- If all TV advertising (about 80 minutes/week) was stopped, the prevalence of obesity will drop by 2.7% in boys and by 2.4% in girls
- Based on the “expert panel” response, they estimated these numbers to be a reduction of 6.8% in boys and 6% in girls
- They estimated that about 1 in 7, or as many as 1 in 3 children would not be obese if there were no TV advertising
Overall, these numbers have a very large amount of uncertainty. The evidence against the effect of TV advertising is weak and calls to ban or limit TV advertising are largely based on personal opinions.
Personally, we have not experienced the effect of TV food advertising in our household because we hardly watch any TV. Mostly our twins watch animated shows on demand where we completely bypass the advertisements.
I am not a supporter of cheap junk food. But I also do not support the idea of banning TV advertising. I continue to believe that the best protection against such advertising is to build the wall of your family’s own personal brand which defines your approach to food and nutrition.
Parents: what is your opinion? Do you think that your family’s food choices are strongly affected by TV advertising? Would you support a complete ban on food advertising to kids?