To ban or not to ban junk food ads for children

The Way I See It
By Daniela Ginta
June 12, 2017 - 5:00am

KAMLOOPS — My youngest was about six when he asked what a happy meal is. Someone at school had mentioned it. I said it’s a healthy meal that you eat with the people you love. Cheeky, I know. Then I explained what people refer to when they talk about a ‘happy meal’. Fast food that comes loaded with sugar, salt, fat, and a plastic toy. The plot between the movie industry and fast food was also discussed. You watch, you buy, and you throw away. You become hooked. Repeat. 

He tilted his head, as if to say that is silly. I shrugged; it is. 

I do not agree with junk food or fast food being offered as treats, nor do I approve of the combined marketing plot. I have been told I deprive my children of a normal childhood. Hardly. There are plenty of delicious and healthy food places out there when one opts to eat out. It’s a sad truth that people in unhealthy food ads never look overweight or overall unhealthy. They beam instead. Life shows the opposite. 

Earlier this year, a study by the Heart and Stroke Foundation delivered shocking stats. In one year, children between the ages of 2 and 11 are exposed to over 25 million food and beverages advertisements while accessing their favourite websites. 

A parent’s best intentions are a poor match for the combination of TV and internet food ads. Approximately 60 percent of the food an average family buys is processed. Yes, marketing works wonders. There’s no flashing ads for tomatoes, apples or broccoli. 

A quarter of Canadian children consume a sugary drink every day, that on top of sugary cereal or other processed foods containing refined sugar, fats, and salt. Childhood obesity rates in Canada have tripled since 1979, and their risk of cardiovascular problems, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, have increased as well. Approximately 60 percent of adult Canadians are overweight or obese. Today’s children are set on a path they will come to hate, because it comes with a plethora of health issues. 

Real food as our grandparents knew is often classified as boring or tasteless. Parents often reward healthy eating with unhealthy treats. In the end, junk food wins the taste competition. I am willing to bet that when Hypocrites said, ‘let food be thy medicine’ he did not think of doughnuts and pop. His system would’ve never worked. 

The actual amount of sugar present in processed foods and beverages is shocking. Some of the talks and documentaries we watch (we do not have cable TV), show how much sugar various foods contain and how much one eats when choosing junk food. Heaps of white stuff that wreaks havoc with our children’s health, offering nothing in return, save for the sugar high – a short-lived and addictive feeling with an ugly downside that translates in unhappiness and an overloaded societal healthcare bill. 

As of recent, the federal government is considering regulating unhealthy food advertisements delivered to children between the ages of two to 17. The news made many readers frown, as seen in their comments. They accused the government of attempting to control what we eat and what feed our children. 

No child will suffer if junk food ads are removed, nor will the parents. If we hand water to children instead of ‘healthy’ fruit juice (still loads of sugar), they will make that the norm. The same if we buy fruit instead of sweetened treats. 

Let’s be honest. Removing unhealthy food ads from children TV programs or websites will not stop anyone from going to the store and buying the very products, should they feel like it. Some suggested that freedom of speech is at risk, should such a ban be implemented. A matter of perspective indeed. With growing numbers of overweight and obese children, and adults too, it makes sense to cut a few of the 25 million (!) junk food ads. That includes stuff like granola bars and sweetened yogurt, for example, which, if you are to take their word for it, are healthy because they are in fact whole grains and, well, yogurt. Right? Nope. 

What’s a parent to do? I’d say stick to the basics. Fruit and veggies, ideally from local farms, which we have plenty of. Head to the farmer’s market for real food, treats included. Samples are the only food ad you’ll see there. Cheeses, pastries, honey, sausages, fruit, wine; it’s a rainbow of flavours. Whether you end up buying it then or later or never, at least you know what it tastes like. Children learning what real food tastes like and how it keeps them healthy may just render the junk food ads useless after a while. 

It takes good conversations and teaching by example, the most powerful tool in a parent’s arsenal. Choose better for yourself and kids will too. Tell them why. Grow a small garden, even a balcony one. Actions speak louder than words. A ban on junk food ads helps too. 

We stand to lose too much down the road if we continue the charade of praising unhealthy foods and indulging in it, more so when those who deliver the advertisements care squat about our children’s well-being. As with everything else we do in parenting, encouraging them to discern and choose wisely in one area of their life, makes it easier to do the same in others. An addiction, whether to unhealthy foods or other type of feel-good substance, is but that: dependence. Freedom from all of that is a gift our children deserve.