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Lisa Miller

December 3, 2010

Marketing tactics could get kids to eat healthy foods

In a new twist on the "Super Size Me" fast-food diet experiment, the executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission ate nothing but spuds for 60 days.

Concerned by Institute of Medicine recommendations that potatoes be limited in school lunches and eliminated from the Women, Infants and Children food program, Chris Voigt set out to show that potatoes are not at the root of the obesity epidemic. After eating as many as 20 potatoes a day (with small amounts of oil and seasonings), Voigt lost 17 pounds and lowered his cholesterol and blood sugar -- proving what nutritionists already knew: When separated from their toppings and deep fryers, potatoes aren't a bad choice.

While Voigt was defending the potato, the French fry came under fire. Last month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned fast-food restaurants from including toys with kids' meals that have excessive calories, sodium and fat, triggering a backlash and arguments about government intrusion versus personal responsibility.

Meanwhile, New York photographer Sally Davies was making headlines with her attempt to document the decay of a McDonald's Happy Meal. (After more than six months sitting on a plate in her apartment, the Happy Meal burger and fries did not decompose.) When will we stop the madness? Diets, gimmicks, finger-pointing and a growing national obsession with fat and weight are not solving our obesity problem, and they may even be making things worse. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, hospitalizations for eating disorders in children younger than 12 increased by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006.

So, what to do? Clearly, tackling fast-food kids' meals in one city is not going to solve the problem, but we should not discount the effect of food marketing, either. The guy who came up with the Happy Meal more than 30 years ago was no dummy. Like Joe Camel on a cigarette pack, the free toy was a clever way to attract lifelong customers.

We need to turn the tables. What if the same marketing tactics were used to entice kids to eat nutritious foods? Imagine: high-fiber, low-sugar cereals with fun mascots and a toy in every box.

If only the USDA had the power to regulate the food industry, it could take a page from the FDA and require fast-food chains to post graphic warning labels next to the larger-than-life photos on their menu boards. I'm picturing a photo of a clogged artery next to the Chicken McNuggets, which contain more fat than protein. Or how about a diabetes warning next to the 32-ounce Triple Thick Chocolate Shake, which weighs in at 1,160 calories (more than half the day's allowance for most people) and 168 grams of sugar. That's 42 teaspoons of sugar, folks!

We need to get real. On the McDonald's website, both the hamburger and McNugget Happy Meals are pictured with low-fat milk, apple slices and the tagline "You want the very best for your kids, and so do we." If McDonald's truly wants "the very best" for our kids, why not voluntarily drop soda, Hi-C and French fries from the Happy Meal menu? It's a win-win. The parents who really want the soda or the fries would pay extra, allowing McDonald's to recoup the money lost by pushing items with a lower profit margin. Other parents might be pleasantly surprised to see that even the pickiest kid will eat apples if she is really hungry and there is no other choice.

Of course, no matter what role the food industry and the government play, parents have the responsibility and the power to influence our kids. We can offer a variety of healthful foods, with less-nutritious choices in moderation. We can get our kids involved in food shopping and cooking. And we can make sure our kids spend more of their free time running, jumping, swimming, biking, dancing and climbing than they spend sitting in front of screens.

It sounds simple, but it's challenging -- especially during this season of excess, when our hero is a roly-poly man with a penchant for cookies and our to-do lists include baking, eating and shopping for treats.

For those who find themselves too busy to bake Christmas cookies for Santa, may I suggest the McDonald's Happy Meal? Santa would happily re-gift the toy, and the burger would, apparently, hold up just fine on a plate by the Christmas tree all night.

Just be sure to choose the apple slices; I'm pretty sure reindeer don't care much for cold fries.

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.

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