PR stunt or a legit way to explore link between fast food and kids' health?

PR stunt or a legit way to explore link between fast food and kids' health?

Remember Morgan Spurlock? He is the guy behind the 2004 film “Supersize Me,” which documented the health consequences of eating nothing but McDonald’s food for a month. The Academy Award-nominated movie was a wakeup call for many Americans, who saw Spurlock gain 24 pounds, spike his cholesterol levels, accumulate fat in his liver and go through some serious mood swings as a result of his fast food diet.

Now another guy is embarking on a fast food-eating challenge. Scott Ehrlich, president of a group called Marketing Disease Prevention + Awareness (MDPA), plans to eat nothing but kids’ meals from fast food joints such as McDonalds, Wendy’s and Burger King for 28 days. In a press release issued today, MDPA says the objective of Ehrlich’s eating challenge is to determine whether “kid's meals actually present a serious danger to children's health.” Fueling the effort, MDPA says, are recent regulatory actions and proposals related to fast food advertising and children. Here’s a snippet from the press release:

“Throughout 2011, there have been numerous proposals by childhood obesity advocates to ban the advertising of fast food items to children. In San Francisco, a very real step has already been taken, where free toys are no longer included in kid's meals at fast food restaurants. However, Ehrlich wonders if this is premature and thinks that if ‘food advertising is to be banned, a real connection between fast food advertising and harmful effects on children's health must be shown.'”

Later on, the press release says:

“While this is not a scientific study, Ehrlich is curious as to the health effects of something deemed by four powerful government agencies as so harmful that, as he paraphrases the perspective of regulatory advocates, ‘even being allowed to view their marketing is so dangerous to our children's health that it needs to be severely curtailed or banned.’”

So, where to begin with my questions?

First, what is the MDPA? According to the group’s website, MDPA puts on conferences and publishes magazines and websites that “discuss how different preventable diseases plaguing the United States can be treated and prevented and how to best communicate these options.” OK, it seems this group is focused on supporting health and wellness through disease prevention. I can get on board with that.

But why then is the group trying to use what appears to be little more than a media stunt to evaluate the health effects of what nutritional research has already proven to be unhealthy food? In a blog post about the challenge, Ehrlich writes that he is “curious to see if these foods, eaten in realistic quantities, are actually so bad for a person’s health that they need to be banned from being marketed.”

Huh? Study after study has shown the harmful effects of salt-, fat- and sugar-laden diets on both adults and children. Also, researchers found that when kids eat fast food, they are more likely to eat more food than is needed throughout the day—which can lead to obesity.

Research, too, shows that advertising can be a powerful force on our children and that marketers for decades have used this force to convince kids that eating fast food is fun and cool and the thing to do. A 2010 Yale University study found that kids—including those as young as preschool age—are being bombarded with more fast food advertising than ever before. The researchers also determined that this advertising is working. Forty percent of parents surveyed by Yale researchers said their child asked to go to McDonald’s at least once a week; and most parents acquiesce, with 84 percent in the Yale study reporting taking their 2-to-11-year-olds to a fast food restaurant within the previous week.

As a parent, I know it’s my responsibility to feed my children well and to keep them away from advertising that I deem inappropriate. That said, I don't believe children should be manipulated by marketers to make unhealthy choices so I applaud the work of the government and other groups to monitor and curtail potentially harmful advertising to kids—and this viewpoint would not be swayed, even if Ehrlich were to report no adverse effects from having indulged in nothing but Happy Meals for 28 days.

But I don’t think getting to answer of whether fast food adversely affects children’s health is really the impetus for Ehrlich’s challenge—the results of which will be unveiled during MDPA’s Communicating Childhood Obesity Conference in March. Smells to me like maybe this whole effort is simply a way to get more people signed up for Ehrlich's $1,500 conference.

What do you think? Share your comments below.

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