See Fat Eat Fat.
Children consume more low-nutrition, high-calorie food such as cookies and candy after observing seemingly overweight cartoon characters, according to a first-of-its-kind study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.
The results of the new study, involving Colorado State University and published online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, show that kids are responsive to the apparent bodyweight of cartoon characters like the aptly named Grimace, a rotund, milkshake-loving creature created by McDonald’s restaurant in the 1970s.
Children tend to perceive ovoid, or egg-shaped, characters as overweight even though the creatures are imaginary, found the study.
“Because research like this is new, looking at kids and stereotyping particularly of cartoon characters, we weren’t sure whether kids would be aware of bodyweight norms,” said Margaret C. Campbell, marketing professor at CU-Boulder’s Leeds School of Business and lead author of the study. “But surprisingly, they apply typically human standards to cartoon creatures, creatures for which there isn’t a real baseline.”
In addition, seeing ovoid cartoon characters can influence children to eat more unhealthy food, according to the study.
“They have a tendency to eat almost twice as much indulgent food as kids who are exposed to perceived healthier looking cartoon characters or no characters at all,” said Campbell.
The inclination to eat more junk food was curtailed, however, when kids in the study first had the opportunity to summon their previously learned health knowledge. That is, before looking at the ovoid cartoon character and then taking a cookie taste-test, the children’s health knowledge was activated when they were asked to choose the healthiest option represented in six pairs of pictures and words, such as getting your sleep versus watching TV, soda versus milk and playing inside versus playing outside, which led to lighter cookie consumption.
“This is key information we should continue to explore,” said Campbell. “Kids don’t necessarily draw upon previous knowledge when they’re making decisions. But perhaps if we’re able to help trigger their health knowledge with a quiz just as they’re about to select lunch at school, for instance, they’ll choose the more nutritious foods.”
Kenneth Manning, professor of marketing at Colorado State University; Bridget Leonard, CU-Boulder graduate student at the time of the study and now assistant professor of marketing at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne; and Hannah Manning, CSU student, co-authored the paper.
The findings, gathered from just over 300 participants in three age groups averaging 8, 12 and 13 years old, have implications for marketers as well as parents navigating a world where children encounter cartoon characters in a variety of media, from books to graphic novels, TV shows, video games, movies and more.
“What I would like to see is companies being a lot more responsible with their own marketing choices,” said Campbell. “I think it is important for parents to know they should think about the way they might be associating food with fun for kids, in the form of exposure to cartoon characters for instance, as opposed to associating food with nutrition and the family structure.”
The Kellogg’s brand is an example of a company that changed the image of one of its cartoon characters in a responsible way, according to Campbell. Several years ago, it revamped Tony the Tiger to be slimmer and more athletic, which may link the character with healthier eating ideas rather than linking to ideas of eating lots of sugary cereal, she said.
Admitting that you have a weight problem may be the first step in taking action, but a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that an increasing number of overweight adolescents do not consider themselves as such.
“Adolescents with accurate self-perceptions of their body weight have greater readiness to make weight-related behavioral changes and are more effective in making the changes,” explained lead investigator Jian Zhang, MD, DrPH, from the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro GA. “By contrast, overweight adolescents who do not perceive their weight status properly are less likely to desire weight loss, and are more likely to have a poor diet.”
When dealing with self-perception, many factors may come into play. For example, as obesity prevalence has more than doubled in adolescents during the past 20 years, socially accepted normal weight may also be shifting accordingly. “In the wake of the obesity pandemic, the media, weight loss industries, and medical communities have encouraged adolescents to maintain slender frames. Facing harsher messages, more and more overweight and obese adolescents may be increasingly reluctant to admit that they are overweight,” noted Dr. Zhang.
Researchers used data from adolescents aged 12-16 years who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) in 1988-1994 (“early,” n=1,720) or 2007-2012 (“recent,” n=2,518). The self-perception of the participant’s weight was obtained from the Youth Questionnaires in the early survey and the Weight History Module in the recent survey. In both surveys, the respondents were asked: Do you consider yourself to be overweight, underweight, or just about the right weight? Participants were categorized as obese, overweight, or normal weight using body mass index (BMI) scores.
The study determined that after adjusting for age, race/ethnicity, sex, and family income, the probability of self-perceiving as “overweight” declined by 29% for overweight/obese adolescents interviewed during 2007-2012 compared with adolescents interviewed in 1988-1994. This misperception was most pronounced among whites and least among blacks.
The researchers also suggest that the Social Comparison Theory may provide an additional explanation. According to this theory, individuals compare themselves to others, rather than to some absolute scale. With more overweight friends, adolescents may have a more positive image of their own weight.
Further contributing factors are that adolescents in general experience significant changes in body appearance as they progress through puberty and the definitions of overweight and obese have changed over time.
Nevertheless, Dr. Zhang and co-investigators caution that, “Becoming conscious of one’s excess weight is the precursor to adopting behavioral changes necessary for appropriate weight control. The declining tendency of correctly perceiving overweight status presents a vast challenge to obesity prevention among adolescents, making the overweight and obese adolescents less motivated to actively engage in effective weight loss behaviors.” On the other hand, the increasing proportion of overweight adolescents self-perceiving their body weight as the right weight may suggest a reduction in social pressure on adolescents and less psychological distress among adolescents to maintain lower weights. The researchers call for novel strategies to delicately protect adolescents’ attitude towards body image while correcting the body misperception to motivate adolescents.
Regardless of family income, children on summer break consume more sugar, watch more television, and eat fewer vegetables than the rest of the year, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Findings are published online in the Journal of School Health.
The research was based on data from U.S. children in grades 1-12 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2008. The sample consisted of 6453 children and adolescents, some surveyed during the school year and others during a school break.
The researchers selected three main dietary measures: total calories consumed per day, number of cups of vegetables consumed, and teaspoons of added sugar, to estimate consumption of calories. They also compared student exercise patterns and screen time and any changes over the summer vacation. Data were compared for households above and below 185% of poverty, the eligibility criteria for receiving free or reduced price school lunch.
“Although obesity-promoting behaviours are generally more common during the summer break, the differences in obesity behaviours between income groups were not exacerbated during the summer break, said Y. Claire Wang, MD, ScD, associate professor of Health Policy and Management and co-director of the Mailman School’s Obesity Prevention Initiative.
Using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended guidelines, overall, students at all grade and income levels throughout the year routinely did not meet the recommended levels of vegetable intake, consumption of sugary sweetened beverages, and exercise, and exceeded the recommended amount for screen time.
In the summer, youth watched an average 20 minutes more television a day and consumed an average three ounces more sugar-sweetened beverages during summer break than during the school year. Overall, exercise was basically unchanged: students were physically active five minutes more on average than they were in school.
High school students, however, exercised significantly more during the summer than during the school year, but still did not meet standard government recommendations. In particular, those from higher-income families participated in more moderate-to-vigorous activities over the break. Lower-income teenage girls exercised less over the summer, with significantly less moderate-to-vigorous exercise.
“The school environment remains essential for shaping healthy eating and active living behaviours, and schools can play a leadership role in fostering a healthy transition from the school year to summer breaks,” suggested Dr. Wang. “We see from our results a need for school-based obesity prevention efforts to go beyond the school day and the school year.”
The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Grant 68162). Co-authors are Seanna Vine, Amber Hsiao, Andrew Rundle, and Jeff Goldsmith–all of the Mailman School of Public Health.
Hunger vs Desire.
Some children gain weight faster than others. Eating habits seem to have far more to say than physical activity, research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology suggests.
What make some children gain weight faster than others? A new survey attempts to identify factors that can lead to obesity.
Assistant Professor Silje Steinsbekk and Professor Lars Wichstrøm from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology are conducting the survey.
“We’ve examined whether physical activity, television time and appetite traits can explain why some children’s body mass index (BMI) increases more than others’ do,” says Steinsbekk.
Most parents are familiar with the percentile curves on a children’s growth chart that doctors use to track healthy rates of growth and weight gain. The child’s weight SHOULD increase, and their bodies should round out as they grow. But how can we prevent this growth curve from becoming too steep?
“BMI is a way to measure our spherical shape, it indicates how round our bodies are,” says Steinsbekk.
A healthy baby is chubby and round. At preschool age, most children slim down until they gradually fill out again, especially around puberty.
“In adults, a BMI over 25 is defined as overweight, and a BMI over 30 is defined as obese,” says Steinsbekk. When calculating BMI in children, both age and gender are taken into account, since boys and girls develop slightly differently.
The researchers found that the way children related to food and eating was crucial. Physical activity and TV viewing, on the other hand, did not explain why the BMI of some children increased more as compared to others.
“Our study shows that BMI increases more in children where food especially triggers their eating behaviour. Their food intake is controlled more by the sight and smell of food, and less by an inner experience of hunger.
The researchers have not investigated the reasons for this, but previous studies have shown that children who respond more enthusiastically to food, and continue to eat even when they are satiated, also actually eat more.
It is therefore plausible that the reason obesity-promoting appetite traits (triggered by food, does not stop even if full) lead to a steeper BMI curve is because these children eat more than others.
Does the child really look forward to mealtimes? Is the child very concerned about food? Does the child want to have more food, even if they are full? Does the child eat faster than other children? Does the child resort to comfort eating? The researchers asked the parents questions like these for their survey.
This is part of a long-term study — Tidlig Trygg i Trondheim (TtiT) — that looks at children’s psychological and psychosocial development over several years. The same children are examined every two years, and in this particular study, the researchers dealt with data from when the children were 4, 6 and 8 years old.
What comes first, appetite or overweight? Do the child’s eating habits explain the differences in BMI, or is it just the opposite, that children’s BMI explains their eating habits? Or in another way of asking; is it the enthusiasm for food that explains the higher BMI, or is it that kids with a high BMI need more energy and thus consume food more eagerly?
The researchers found that it seems to go both ways.
“Our results show that in relative terms, the BMI of children who are particularly triggered by food increases more when compared with others. But we also found the opposite effect: a high BMI leads to children becoming even more triggered by food over time (at around 6 to 8 years old). As they get older, they are even less able to stop eating when they’re full,” says Steinsbekk.
Why this is, scientists can’t answer yet. More studies are needed.
Steinsbekk has worked with children with obesity for many years. She points out that many of these children find it difficult to know when they are full and therefore need their parents’ help to regulate their food intake (for example, one serving at dinner). On the other hand, we know that in order to promote the development of normal eating behaviour, it is important for children to decide how much they want to eat. If children are pushed to eat everything on their plates, they may stop relying on their own body’s signals, and eat until the parents are happy.
Research results have been published in the Journal of Paediatric Psychology. The researchers are continuing to look at obesity and eating behaviour in children, and more results are expected within a few months.