TV Makes Kids Fat or Fatter, Take Your Choice

Watching TV

That overweight kids are likely to become obese adults seems to be a fairly reasonable assumption. Of course, whether a person is young or old, excess fat is a liability. It’s just that, as we age, extra poundage becomes even more of a liability. Scientific American doesn’t want to see hefty kids grow into hopelessly out-of-shape adults. Earlier this month, the magazine published an article credited to its editors, titled “Underage, Overweight: The Federal Government Needs to Halt the Marketing of Unhealthy Foods to Kids.”

The piece is laced with alarming numbers, the two most prominent being that, in America, nearly one out of three children (defined here as under 18) is obese, and two out of three adults are overweight or obese. We blame the couch-potato, TV-zombie habits of our kids for their obesity (and our own habits for our own flab too, if we’re honest.) But here’s a new and interesting result of some recent research:

You might expect that watching TV, being a sedentary activity, is responsible for obesity, but the study found that obesity is correlated not with television per se, but with advertising. The more commercial programming children watched, the fatter they got compared with those who watched a comparable amount of public television or DVDs.

It’s the advertising that makes the difference, and why are we not surprised? It’s amazing, the cognitive dissonance that grown-ups manage to maintain, when we think about the minds of children. On the one hand, we devoutly believe that their brains are little sponges, eager to soak up the lessons they are given in school, and the plethora of enrichment experiences we provide them with, and, most of all, our own words of incomparable wisdom. At the same time, we also manage to convince ourselves that children’s minds are impermeable membranes, and everything they see on TV will just bounce right off and not affect them in any way.

Well, it just might be that we can’t have it both ways. The absorbent minds of children don’t stop at absorbing the stuff we consider desirable. They soak up everything, so we might want to be more careful about what we put in front of their eyes. A complete report on that study, written by Sarah Anderson, can be found at UCLA Newsroom.

The Scientific American editors feel that Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, designed to help schools and parents who want to help kids, is not enough. Obesity is the most common childhood medical problem, they say, and the solution is legislation as a preventative health measure. In 2007, the purveyors of junk food spent more than one and a half billion dollars to advertise their wares to children, and have made only “ineffectual commitments” to change their ways.

In order to protect the young from this brainwashing, a number of federal agencies have banded together to propose standards around the marketing of junk food to kids. One of their ideas is to differentiate between products that meet certain minimal nutritional standards, and those that are clearly devoid of meaningful content. Only the former would be allowed to advertise on commercial kid TV. This interagency working group will pass its recommendation to Congress on or before July 15, but no matter how stringent or lax those standards are, they will still be voluntary. Scientific American feels that, on the contrary, that they should be mandatory, and enforced by the Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Pretlow Gets Around!

In case you missed this, the Seattle Times recently published an interview with Dr. Pretlow, conducted by staff reporter Mark Rahner. Also, in April, Dr. Pretlow presented a talk called “What’s Really Causing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic — What Kids Say” at the Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, Texas. Jessica Johns Pool followed up with an article at Healthy Houston Kids, giving her impressions of that talk and of her explorations of the richness of the Weigh2Rock website.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Underage, Overweight: The Federal Government Needs to Halt the Marketing of Unhealthy Foods to Kids,” Scientific American, 05/10
Source: “Childhood obesity: It’s not the amount of TV, it’s the number of junk food commercials,” UCLA Newsroom, 02/08/10
Source: “Weigh to Rock helps overweight kids, teens,” Healthy Houston Kids, 05/10
Image by Leonid Mamchenkov, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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