One of my earlier columns for QSR was about childhood obesity. I talked about what’s encouraged it and I proposed some solutions. I received a lot of responses. One in particular stopped me flat in my cowboy boots. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, had a lot to say about my column, and we exchanged several e-mails. 

I think it is important that you hear Michael’s reaction to my perspective on childhood obesity. So my editor allowed this column to be cowritten by Michael and me, furthering the discussion of childhood obesity and the quick-serve industry. 

Thomas is eight years old, intelligent, and witty. He understands computers, does well in school, and, most importantly, loves to play sports. In his words, “I do basketball, baseball, and soccer.” But he’s carrying more than a few extra pounds and is very aware of it. His parents both work. Let’s talk to Thomas about food and eating.

Roy: Hey dude. Getting ready for school? What are you eating today?

Thomas: For breakfast, I’ll probably have some Froot Loops and milk and a couple of granola bars, and then a school lunch. But for dinner, I’m going to try to get my mom to bring home some hamburgers and fries.

Mike: It’s clear that Thomas’ parents are busy, feeling guilty about not cooking real meals, and fed up with telling him “no” all the time. No wonder they go to a fast food outlet. 

Roy: Well, there’s nothing wrong with a hamburger from time to time. After all, it’s just meat and bread.

Mike: Come on, Roy, you know better than that. That meal has plenty of fat, salt, and white flour, the very prescription for heart disease. And “time to time” for many families is several times a week. Those meals may start with small burgers, but often grow into large cheeseburgers, then double cheeseburgers, and ultimately those burgers that weigh half a pound or more … along with a quart of soda pop and a big order of fries.

Roy: Thomas, do you think TV commercials get you to buy things?

Thomas: No, I just think they’re fun. They’re faster, louder, and funnier than most TV shows.

Mike: Yeah, sure kid. Everyone, including adults, thinks they’re immune to the ploys of advertising. But if ads didn’t work, companies wouldn’t sponsor them. And studies show they influence kids’ food choices, diets, and health. Young children don’t even understand the intent of advertising and essentially are defenseless against it. Brainwashing might be a more apt term than advertising.

Roy: As McDonald’s old advertising chief, I know what good advertising can do. And I know that as long as companies seek profit, they will use advertising to generate sales and brand loyalty. That’s the whole idea.

Thomas: Roy, I do like the ads, and I do like the free toys—especially ones with my favorite movie characters.

Roy: Thomas, I have to tell you the truth, the toys usually aren’t free—they’re priced into the meal. And companies have found that kids are a lot more tempted by the toys than the food.

Mike: I think we’ve found some common ground. But I’d go further. Restaurants simply shouldn’t use toys to ensnare little kids. Better, they shouldn’t advertise at all, at least until they offer meals that won’t give the Surgeon General a heart attack. 

Roy: Those meals can already be ordered, Mike. Thomas, you told me earlier that you want to play sports, but it’s hard because you’re carrying some extra pounds. Why don’t you turn off the TV and computer, quit bugging Dad for more fast food, and hit the salad bar at school?

Mike: Roy, give the kid a break. You’re basically telling Thomas to resist all the temptations in his life. That’s not an easy task for an adult, let alone for an eight-year-old. Thomas has no idea that what he eats is quietly, gradually raising his blood pressure, clogging his arteries, and expanding his waistline. While quick serves’ (and other companies’) foremost objective is to make a profit, they certainly could help by not advertising unhealthy foods to kids and by selling only kids’ meals that are healthy.

Roy: Well, I’m going to lay the blame where it should be. Parents need to exact control. The kid can’t get to a restaurant by himself. Someone has to take him. And meals at home are not difficult. A piece of baked fish, a salad, and a vegetable can be prepared in minutes. I think parents use their schedule as an excuse to hit the drive thru. And until parents demand more of their school lunch programs, pizza will be the only entrée. I agree that quick serves need to clean up their acts, but they will serve what the people want.  

Mike: I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree with you again. Parents are ultimately responsible for whether the family eats in or eats out, or for allowing their kids to eat a junky restaurant meal with a bucket-sized soft drink. But many parents don’t understand the health problems that typical restaurant fare causes—and they might well serve the same kind of food at home. How about joining with me in putting some of the blame on restaurant executives? 

They bombard kids with marketing—TV commercials, Internet games, branded toys and clothing, and “teachers nights” at local outlets. It’s no surprise that kids then pester their parents to go out to eat and—hey, parents are human, too—sometimes parents just say “the heck with it” and give in to their kids’ pleas. At the very least, I hope the new calorie-labeling law will both spur people to eat less and spur restaurants to offer healthier meals.

Roy: Well, if it isn’t moderation, education, and parent control, then what is it? We’re not going to get anywhere proposing unrealistic answers like stopping advertising and closing down the food industry.

Many thanks to Thomas and Mike. Have a Peaceful Life, and Happy Trails. 

By Rob Bergold
Health & Nutrition, Industry News, Philanthropy