Written by: Wallace Merriman

Nutrition That Rocks: Using Media to Solve the Childhood Obesity Epidemic
Posted on:Dec 7, 2011

Childhood obesity means more than just fat kids. It means that about one-third of American kids—despite eating too many calories—are not getting the proper nutrition.

The repercussions are serious: a poor diet affects emotional health, physical fitness levels, bone density levels, diabetes risk and longevity. In a nation of extreme wealth and obesity, we are poised to die like the Romans.

Childhood obesity’s quick gains over the last few decades are the result of many culprits: food company lobbyists, fewer families cooking meals, food standards that haven’t evolved since 1995, stringent school curriculums that have reduced unstructured play, government policy that subsidizes corn and soy to make junk food cheaper than healthy food, the concentration of fast-food restaurants around schools.

Where do we even begin to improve kids’ health?

While we can back the research on childhood obesity with decades of large-scale studies, the impact of the media is more elusive to study, yet omnipresent. Celebrity babies are now news, and despite the obesity epidemic, the actors we see on our screens weigh even less than before. The tools used to convince us that we need something totally useless are quite rudimentary: songs, shock, characters, and ideal people.

Although new television networks, government programs, and private organizations have created positive content, McDonald’s continues to serve over 54 million people per day. McDonald’s is also the number one advertiser of food. Media is so powerful it is able to override people’s common sense.

Our consumer culture— the need to have the next big thing and with little factual information
presented—is one of the major forces behind obesity. Kids consume about 7.5 hours of media per day. Kids expect instant access to information. They expect to be entertained, or they will change the channel.

Even with all this media, we don’t teach kids how to interpret what they see. Preschool children cannot distinguish between commercials and programming, even with separation devices such as “We’ll be right back after this.” Young elementary-age children lack the ability to understand the persuasive intent of television advertising (APA, 2004).

Selling to kids is a $330 billion industry (Schor, Born to Buy). For these flaws, and its high usage, media is often blamed for contributing to the obesity problem.

Utilizing the influence of media to promote healthy habits is our weapon in fighting childhood obesity. Our pacing needs to be fast, our stories need to be compelling, our characters need to be interesting, our songs need to be well-written…all using less money.

I built my company around this idea, using the same tools normally used to sell junk food to get kids excited, engaged and learning about healthy habits. I have three touring productions and two CDs of heart-pumping, Top 40-sounding educational music on the market. My job is to ignite a passion in people to participate in this movement, from kids requesting healthier foods, to parents providing healthier options, to schools taking action on their wellness policies.

I call myself The Rockstar Nutritionist, armed with my credentials as a registered dietitian and my experience as a rock band singer/songwriter. I join the ranks of even more accomplished activists like Jamie Oliver, Robert Kenner, and Morgan Spurlock who have made health media mainstream. We are using our combined voices to create useful, meaningful media that solves a social problem. Join us.

Healthy Tips for Parents to Make Healthy Fun
1. LEAD BY EXAMPLE Help raise a healthy eater by being one yourself. Choose wheat bread over white, eat fruit for dessert, and snack on sliced vegetables instead of chips. Try new healthy foods.

2. COOK YOUR OWN FOOD Fast food and restaurant meals are loaded with hidden salt, sugar and fat. When you cook at home, you control the ingredients that your children put into their bodies.

3. EAT TOGETHER AS A FAMILY Turn off the television and cell phones. Engage your child in conversation. Kids who regularly eat family meals perform better academically and have better overall nutrition.

4. USE THE GROCERY STORE AS A CLASSROOM As you go through the aisles, discuss with your child where foods come from – how they are grown, processed, and packaged. Encourage them to select a new healthy food with only one ingredient, like colorful raw peppers.
5. MAKE HEALTHY EATING FUN Cut healthy foods into kid-friendly shapes like triangles, rectangles, circles and hearts. Give healthy foods fun names! Peanut butter filled celery sticks with raisins on top become “Ants on a Log” and wheat toast cut into strips and dipped in soft-boiled eggs become “Eggs & Soldiers”. Encourage your child to invent new healthy snacks.

6. COOK WITH YOUR KIDS Give your child food preparation responsibilities like peeling potatoes or measuring flour. They are more likely to accept a new food if they have had a hand in creating it.

7. DON’T GIVE UP Disliking new food is normal. It can take 10 tries before a child will accept a new food. Try offering one new food at a time, serving something your child likes along with the new food, and introducing new foods at the beginning of a meal when your child is very hungry. Avoid lecturing or forcing your child to eat. Help your child learn vocabulary for trying new foods by describing the taste, texture, and smell even if they don’t like it.

8. LISTEN TO YOUR GUT Eating the right amount of food is important. Teach your child to recognize a healthy portion and to listen to their internal cues for fullness. The time to stop eating is when you start feeling full, not when all the food is gone.

9. REWARD WITH ATTENTION, NOT FOOD Don’t reward good behavior with food. Show your love with hugs, kisses, conversation, reading books, and taking walks.

10. ONLY OFFER HEALTHY CHOICES Don’t offer a child the choice between the carrot or a cookie; they will always choose the cookie. Provide choices within healthy options, like “Which would you like for dinner: broccoli or cauliflower?” instead of “Do you want broccoli for dinner?”

11. MINIMIZE SCREEN TIME AND ENCOURAGE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY Limit time with TV and video games to two hours per day. Spend at least an hour per day doing something that makes you sweat. Spend time together as a family doing something active like riding bikes, jumping rope, walking the neighborhood, or hosting a living room dance party.