On Tuesday, April 27, the board of supervisors in Santa Clara County, which is south of San Francisco, approved the nation’s first ordinance preventing restaurants from using toys to peddle unhealthy food to children. Ken Yeager, who sponsored the initiative, believes the ordinance will help level the playing field by taking away the incentive for kids to choose fatty, sugary foods over healthier options.
Banning the toys that come with Happy Meals or other items that contain excessive amounts of fat, calories, salt, and sugar may help curb childhood obesity, but I think there’s an even better solution: Replace the unhealthy fast food with more nutritious options and give children an incentive to eat that.
Kids who get hooked on hamburgers, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, cheese pizza, and other cholesterol-laden foods are more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Childhood weight problems are a precursor to adult obesity, which drastically reduces life expectancy.
If we tempt kids to eat healthily now, they’ll be more likely to grow into fit, healthy adults. We tend to show them pictures of diseased lungs to warn them about the effects of smoking, and photos of grisly car crashes to illustrate the effects of drunk driving, yet we often fail to teach them the consequences of eating an unhealthy diet.
Restaurants have long used toys and other gimmicks to promote their unhealthy food to children, rather than marketing healthy options, and they’re finally starting to incur the wrath of parents. McDonald’s has not only been under fire for tempting youngsters with toys, but for using Ronald McDonald to make children associate unhealthy food with fun and happiness.
In a blog about Corporate Accountability International’s campaign to “Retire Ronald,” Care2’s Ann Pietrangelo pointed out that nearly half the public wants Ronald McDonald to retire, and close to 60 percent of Americans blame the fast-food industry for childhood obesity.
In another “Retire Ronald” blog, writer Gina-Marie Cheeseman notes that children are much more susceptible to advertisements than adults, and just one 30-second commercial can influence the preferences of children as young as two. Dr. Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, predicted that, if the food and restaurant industry didn’t change how they market to children, the government would step in and then require them to. It seems that’s starting to happen now.
I certainly won’t miss Ronald if he’s forced into retirement—and I know that kids don’t need more throwaway toys and trinkets—but I also wouldn’t find it nearly as objectionable if McDonald’s and other fast-food chains used their persuasive tactics to promote truly healthy options. If they replaced their typical fatty foods with veggie burgers, soy hot dogs, faux chicken, and, even more importantly, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, they could help kids develop a taste for more wholesome foods and perhaps even get in the good graces of parents everywhere.
Read more: health policy
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