Media Monday – Childhood Obesity – Who Is Really To Blame?

I recently heard the argument that if you don’t want your kids to be fat (obese) then just don’t buy them junk food. It seems that everyone is quick to hold parents solely responsible for the childhood obesity epidemic in Australia and overseas. There is a lot of judgement surrounding this issue especially in light of the new debate as to whether an obese child reflects parental neglect warranting the involvement of child protective services.

Misconception 1 – Parents are totally and completely to blame

It make sense to blame parents. After all, we are the ones who buy our children junk food because they can’t purchase it for themselves. Of course we are somewhat responsible but sadly, it’s not that simple.

As parents, the odds are stacked against us. Our children are growing up in a culture that is saturated with advertising. Trying to raise children with values, a strong sense of self-worth and the ability to make good choices is difficult when our culture constantly contradicts what we are doing.

We can teach our children about healthy eating and nutrition but everywhere they go they are bombarded with the temptations of ‘bad foods’.

Misconception 2 – Junk Food advertising / marketing doesn’t affect me or my kids

Junkfood marketing to children

Does your child’s face light up when they see that plastic fantastic playground attached to Mcdonalds? Then they are impacted by marketing. Does your child ever ask for a lolly pop as you exit the supermarket? Then they are affected by advertising. Do you ever see the drive thru sign and think you’ll just stop through and grab dinner? Then you are also affected by advertising. We all are.

The argument is that it still MY choice and I am in control.  It’s true. Advertising doesn’t tell us what to do but it DOES influence our choices.

Why is it that we know junk food is bad for us but we still continue to want it, to buy it and devour it..time and time again?

Because we are all impacted by food advertising.

We live in a culture of advertising so these foods remain constantly on our mind. It’s not that we consciously think about junk food all the time – but the constant bombardment of advertising means we can’t forget about it.

We are all impacted by advertising and our children even more so because they lack the cognitive ability to process the information. It is for this reason that advertising to children is deemed unethical and banned in many progressive European countries.

Misconception 3 – There are plenty of healthy alternatives these days so there’s no excuse!

unhealthy foods disguised

Once again it’s very easy to underestimate the sneakiness of advertising and marketing.

There are plenty of unhealthy foods marketed as health foods. Want a nutritious start to the day? Why not put chocolate on toast? Or eat crunchy, chocolate cereal because it has the goodness of iron? Companies often taken nutritionally bankrupt foods and add a synthetic mix of vitamins and then market exactly the same product under the guise that it’s healthy.

There is still widespread confusion when it comes to health foods.  I remember the first time I attended a additive alert seminar. I nearly cried. Carcinogens in my children’s food? How is this even allowed? As we started to remove food chemicals from my children’s diets I also had to adjust their diet to cater for food intolerances and allergies which were also causing problems. Then I started reading about the problems with wheat and gluten and now I am (almost) grain free and limiting dairy, wheat and gluten in my children’s diets. I would be lying if I didn’t say I sometimes feel confused about what is best for my kids when it comes to foods. Should they be eating super foods and which ones? Is wheat good or bad? Are green smoothies all that? What about vitamins? Am I doing enough to help them grow healthy and strong and limit potential health problems later in life?

The more parents I talk to the more I realise how many unknowingly feed their children unhealthy foods or large amounts of low nutrition foods. These are not parents who are lazy or uneducated. They are good parents who simply haven’t thought to question foods readily available on supermarket shelves especially when it just seems ‘normal’ to feed kids these foods. Who should be penalised here? The parent who believes the marketing slogan and purchases foods she believes to be healthy which make her child fat or the company that profits from the sales of these harmful foods?

So, who is really to blame for our current childhood obesity epidemic in Australia? Well, The answer is complex.

But what I do know is that less time should be spent blaming parents for being weak-willed and giving into their overweight child’s appetite for junk food and more time spent confronting the industries that engage in deceptive marketing. More time should be spent addressing the ethics behind advertising to children and less time accusing loving parents of being neglectful.

We need to stop criticising parents and help to create a greater awareness of how advertising influences our choices and ultimately the choices our children will make as they grow.


Advertising is self-regulated in Australia which means it is dependent on people making complaints. No response to an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at children is interpreted as support so our pro activity is really important if we want to see change. To lodge a complaint contact the ad standards beureau.

For more info on organisations aimed at protecting children against junk food advertising see CFAC

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