Protecting Minds from Food Advertising

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Protecting Minds from Food Advertising

Sunday, 18 February 2024 | The HEALTH PIONEER

Protecting Minds from Food Advertising

In a world inundated with advertisements promoting unhealthy foods to kids, The Health Pioneer delves into the WHO-UNICEF toolkit, a measure to help steer impressionable young minds away from the path of obesity

Picture a bustling cityscape, where billboards loom large, and television screens flicker with enticing images of sugary snacks and fatty treats. For too long, these advertisements have preyed upon the vulnerability of children, shaping their preferences and influencing their eating habits in ways that can have lifelong consequences.

No doubt, in a world where children are bombarded with advertisements promoting unhealthy foods, the WHO-UNICEF toolkit stands as a beacon of hope. Crafted through a collaborative effort between the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), this toolkit represents a concerted effort to protect the health and well-being of the youngest members of our society.

The document suggests practical strategies and evidence-based recommendations, providing a roadmap for enacting meaningful change. These policies are not merely suggestions but essential safeguards, grounded in a commitment to protect the rights of every child.

But the journey is far from over. As the toolkit finds its way into the hands of policymakers around the globe, there is a renewed sense of urgency. With childhood obesity rates on the rise and the impact of food marketing becoming increasingly pervasive, the time for action is now, assert health experts.

Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at WHO, says,  "Aggressive and pervasive marketing of foods and beverages high in fats, sugars, and salt to children is responsible for unhealthy dietary choices."

Agrees Dr GV Basavaraja President, Indian Academy of Pediatrics. “Young minds, characterized by curiosity and susceptibility to suggestions, become targets of advertisers, who have been investing significant resources to ensure that their products capture the attention of this demographic.

“Despite the potential harm to their health, children often find themselves drawn to these products, creating a concerning link between advertising and unhealthy consumption patterns,” he says.

There are numerous studies that have established connection between childhood obesity and exposure to advertising. “This issue demands our attention, in the light of the staggering increase in childhood obesity cases by 11 million, since 2000, he said in his article published in the latest issue of journal Indian Pediatrics.

Dr Basavaraja continues, “the implications of this extend beyond physical health, affecting education, quality of life, and have psychological consequences. Overweight and obesity are the major risk factors for a broad range of noncommunicable diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and cancer. “

According to a recent study, obesity affects 380 million children and adolescents worldwide. Low and middle-income countries are the most affected worldwide. If current trends persist, India will contribute approximately 11% of the global burden of child obesity by 2030. India faces a triple burden of malnutrition, stunting, wasting, and micronutrient deficiencies along with an increase in childhood overweight and obesity.

The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5, conducted in 2019-21), found that 3.4% of children under five are now overweight compared with 2.1% in 2015-16.

The numbers may seem small, but Dr Arjan de Wagt, chief of nutrition at Unicef in India, says that "even a very small percentage can mean very large numbers because of the size of the Indian population.”

Unicef's World Obesity Atlas for 2022 reveals that India is predicted to have more than 27 million obese children, representing one in 10 children globally, by 2030. It ranks 99th on the list of 183 countries in terms of preparedness to deal with obesity and the economic impact of overweight and obesity is expected to rise from USD 23 billion in 2019 to a whopping USD 479 billion by 2060.

Dr Basavaraja stresses that on promotion of and implementation of WHO-UNICEF tool actively.

“Our duty goes beyond treatment – we must prioritize prevention, so as to safeguard the wellbeing of future generations.”

The IAP has also stressed on many of these issues in its previous guidelines on junk foods, he reminds.

Measurement of body mass index (BMI) as well as waist circumference should be routinely inculcated in clinical practice. Parents and children have always been a single unit in pediatrics, so educating them of the impending risks is essential for curbing this disease.

Need for a balanced diet and all its components should also be explained in detail to the family. “To effectively address the challenge of balancing child rights and content regulation, we need to navigate a delicate balance between protecting the rights of children and imposing restrictions on content,” concludes Dr Basavaraja.

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