Selling Crap to Kids, Part 12

In his New York Times piece, “Why Your New Year’s Diet Is Doomed,” Mark Bittman wrote,

The interactions among calorie intake, exercise, fat accumulation, insulin resistance and genetic background, along with other environmental factors that cause diet-related diseases (such as stress and generational poverty), are variable and complicated.

In other words, and not surprisingly, this problem is and always will be multi-factorial, and thus not amenable to any facile solution. Still, it is always possible that some factors weigh more heavily than others, and in this case, the factor known as ultra-processing was recognized as quite significant because, “Now, more than half of our total calories come from ultra-processed foods.”

What does that mean exactly? One apt definition was provided by the Brazilian scientist, Carlos Monteiro, who characterized such foods as containing ingredients that are “never or rarely used in kitchens.” But they are used in factories where, for example, the perceived necessity of a freakishly unnatural, extremely prolonged shelf life is also to blame.

We have seen that researchers easily obtain from children confessions about how they harass their parents, both at home and in public places, to obtain their substances of choice. Of course, these exertions are aided by the cunning strategy employed by grocery stores, of placing the products garnished with pictures of cartoon characters on the lower shelves where children can’t miss them.

We say it, you believe it

Such predatory practices set kids up to fail and obviously contribute to the obesity epidemic, and nobody seems able to do anything about them. Or rather, the people who are able are not willing; while those who are willing are not able.

Many individuals and groups lobbied for stricter rules that would require supermarkets to rearrange their shelves and keep sweets out of children’s sightlines. Even some politicians risked incurring the anger of their corporate overlords by demanding that foods with low nutritional value and high obesity potential be placed on higher shelves.

Unfortunately, studies from the Netherlands indicated that such cosmetic measures are pretty much doomed to futility:

[P]ositioning healthier snacks at the checkout counter, without removing less healthy snacks, did not result in the replacement of less healthy snack purchases with healthier alternatives. To discourage the purchase of less healthy snacks at supermarket checkouts, a total substitution of less healthy with healthier snacks is clearly the most effective.

Clearly, no business is going to hide its highly processed and fattening foods in the back room. Those products will remain out where the people who want them can easily find them. And just offering a healthful alternative next to the crappy stuff does not inspire people to choose the healthful alternative.

The only way to stop customers from buying worthless substances posing as food is to not even offer it for sale. In which case, most people will just go to a different store whose products are more to their liking.

How low can you go?

Over in the United Kingdom, there are some standards in place regarding what may be publicly said about food and drink, in places where young folks might hear. One year ago, researchers from the University of Chicago looked at a bunch of Instagram posts made by the “beautiful people” and applied those standards to what they saw:

They found 87 percent of celebrity accounts analyzed received an unhealthy overall food nutrition score, with 89.5 per cent receiving the same result for beverages.

These messages, in the main, were not obviously paid-for advertisements, but allegedly spontaneous and sincere remarks the famous folk just happened to make in the course of living their everyday lives. Many of those remarks did and do concern alcohol, which is nobody’s idea of a healthful influence (and which contributes to obesity both by containing calories and by corrupting people’s judgment about what they ought to be eating).

And in the food category, it comes as no surprise to learn that those observations tend overwhelmingly to concern snacks and sweets. Also, this type of message, which is perceived by fans as authentic and credible, draws more reactions or “engagement,” which in turn rewards the celebrities who regard attention as a form of payment.

Of course, some of them also make millions of dollars for a single post, but shhhh! We are supposed to pretend we don’t know that.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Why Your New Year’s Diet Is Doomed,”, 01/09/21
Source: “Can Healthy Checkout Counters Improve Food Purchases? Two Real-Life Experiments in Dutch Supermarkets,”, 11/19/20
Source: “Are influencers making our children FAT?,”, 01/12/22
Source: “20 of Instagram’s Highest Paid Stars in 2024,”, 01/30/24
Image by balu/CC BY 2.0 DEED

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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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