(Dec. 29) American kids are getting fatter, and a big reason why is they eat too many fries and candy and not enough fruits and vegetables. Is marketing aimed at kids to blame? One nutrition advocate thinks so.

“If companies were marketing broccoli and bananas to kids, no one would be concerned,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, D.C. “But the fact is that virtually all of the foods marketed to children are high in calories, salt, saturated fat and refined sugars and low in nutrients.”

Krispy Kreme doughnuts as a reward for good grades, Barbie in a McDonald’s uniform and Yankees slugger Jason Giambi saying he slugs several Pepsis a day are a few of the marketing strategies criticized by the center in a recent report on childhood obesity.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Wootan said, the Federal Trade Commission considered restrictions on junk-food advertising aimed at kids, but those efforts were blocked by the food, toy, broadcasting and advertising industries. Now, with childhood obesity rates at all-time highs, it’s time to take another look at government standards, she said.

A law governing marketing junk food to kids, much like laws limiting tobacco advertising, is a good idea, said Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del.

But until that happens, the produce industry needs to work with restaurants and food companies on more nutritionally responsible marketing.

“Based on calls we’ve gotten from some of these companies, there is a desire on their part to do better,” Pivonka said. “I think the produce industry can play a big role in helping them do the right thing.”

PBH’s 5 a Day the Color Way and other child-centered marketing programs are making inroads, Pivonka said, but with the marketing budget PBH and other nutrition advocacy groups have to work with, they can’t compete for kids’ attention with Pepsi and Krispy Kreme.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is calling on state and local governments to fund nutrition media campaigns and urging Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, to make marketing a central focus of the administration’s anti-obesity campaign.

“Parents are fighting a losing battle against food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants,” Wootan said. “They use aggressive and sophisticated techniques to get into children’s heads and prompt them to pester their parents to purchase the company’s products.”

Not everyone shares the center’s take on the role of food marketing in childhood obesity.

Steven Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C., criticized the singling out of restaurants and food companies. He said lack of exercise might be a bigger culprit than diet.

“Calorie intake has remained fairly constant over the last 20 years, and physical activity has increasingly declined,” Anderson said. “Several studies have demonstrated the imbalance of the energy-in, energy-out equation.”

Anderson cited three studies.

One, by researchers at the University of North Carolina, found that between 1980 and 2000, obesity increased by 10%, physical activity declined 13% and caloric intake rose just 1%. A second, by Johns Hopkins, found that by the time they’re 17, children will have spent 38% more time in front of the TV than in school.
The third, by the Centers for Disease Control, reported that Illinois is the only state that requires daily physical education in every grade.