March 26th, 2008

Fatty Food on the Tube a Large Problem

By Jennifer Torres
The Record

Ads on Spanish-language TV hawk unhealthy foods, research finds

The grown-up voices that encourage kids to munch on carrot sticks still are at odds with the charisma of afternoon television ads that have those children reaching for french fries - especially within the Latino community, where childhood obesity rates tend to be highest, according to a report in the April issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center found that Spanish-language television bombards children with so many fast-food and sugary-drink commercials during after-school programming hours that it could be contributing to obesity.

Commercials, of course, aren’t solely to blame, the researchers noted. But, they argued, parents and other adults should be vigilant about communicating healthy eating messages to help counteract what young eyes see on television.

“Cool. Look, it’s chicken,” 3-year-old Joshua Minero cheered during lunchtime at Patty Reconco’s Be My Friend home child care center.

Reconco and her assistants passed out bright colored plates of chicken breast, mashed potatoes and rice.

“I believe that proper nutrition leads to proper education,” said Reconco, who leads a support group for Spanish-speaking child care providers. “Academically, children can do better if they have better nutrition. ... I’ve become a little passionate on the subject.”

Reconco has taken classes and participated in workshops on child development and health.

She said she imagines it can be hard for parents to promote healthy eating to children who are tempted by images of unhealthy foods. She tries to help by offering healthier alternatives to sweet children’s cereals and other snacks.

“I tell the parents, ‘I don’t know if you can buy this type of cereal for home, but boy, does your child like it,’” she said. When it’s time to celebrate birthdays, she suggests parents bring muffins rather than cupcakes.

For their study, called “Comida en Venta: After-school Advertising on Spanish-Language Television in the United States,” the Johns Hopkins researchers analyzed 60 hours of programming airing between 3 and 9 p.m. on Univision and Telemundo.

They tallied about 2.5 food or drink commercials each hour, one-third of which targeted children.

About 30 percent of food ads were for fast food, and more than half of the commercials for drinks advertised sodas or other sugary options, according to the study.

“It’s huge, especially with the young kids,” said Federico Navarro, a nutrition specialist with the Greater Stockton Emergency Food Bank. “When a lot of the kids come home, they’re watching cartoons, and a lot of the things they’re advertising aren’t healthy. ... That’s what’s in their heads.”

The food bank’s Mobile Farmers Market, which brings fresh produce to neighborhoods where such items might not be easily available, serves a large number of Latino clients, Navarro said.

Many families haven’t cooked with the type of vegetables typically grown in the region, so the mobile market’s bilingual driver prepares demonstration recipes as she discusses nutrition, he said.

The Family Resource and Referral Center of San Joaquin County helps connect families to child care options - and also offers training sessions to day care providers in the area.

Educating about proper nutrition and preventing childhood obesity have become priorities, said Tony Washington, a spokesman for the agency.

“Nutrition is so important for young children who are in a child care setting,” he said. “And childhood obesity is such a major problem. We have a lot of information, and we’re always available to talk to parents and providers.”

Reconco uses a guide to help her prepare nutritionally sound meals. She praises children for eating them up and gushes over how yummy sautéed chicken breast is.

After lunch recently, she asked who was ready for dessert: apple slices.

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