Blind Man's Bluff

Blind to the Biggest Drivers of Obesity?

We’ve become blind to one of the biggest drivers of obesity. So says Julia Belluz – someone whom we rely upon for generally thoughtful writing about obesity. She’s reporting on a new study in Pediatrics about sports sponsorships used to promote food and soft drinks.

Marketing Unhealthy Food and Beverages

Marie Bragg and colleagues analyzed television viewing patterns of youth and children. They found the top ten most viewed sports organizations for that audience in 2015. Then they analyzed the advertising that sponsored those sports.

Number one was auto ads. After that came food and beverage ads. And unsurprisingly, the foods and beverages in the advertising were not highly nutritious. Among them, 76% of the food products had unhealthy nutrition scores (Nutrient Profile Indexes). Among the advertized beverages, 52% were sugar-sweetened.

The Problem with Food Marketing

Belluz gets the intended message. Food marketers are pushing junk food and sugary drinks on easy marks – kids. She says:

Millions of kids who follow sports leagues are being saturated with messages about junk food, from Doritos to Skittles to soda.

Belluz describes a global crackdown on food marketing to kids and concludes that the U.S. is lagging behind the rest of the world. However, simply restricting junk food marketing might well miss the mark. We might be even more blind to drivers of obesity than Belluz suspects. Will we be better off if we immerse our kids in marketing for the latest healthy foods? Foods that fit a healthy Nutrient Profile Index?

Maybe not.

Unrelenting Food Cues

For decades now, food policy wonks have been chasing a definition of healthy food without much success. For a long time, that definition revolved around limiting fat. Now, we’ve shifted to limiting sugar. The food industry is responding with “healthy” options that conform to the latest fashion for healthy food.

But we suspect that immersing children – and for that matter adults, too – in marketing cues to eat this new, healthy stuff won’t solve our problems. As Kevin Hall recently pointed out, the problems with our food environment go much deeper than simple definitions of healthy nutrient profiles. More people are eating and snacking in more places. Food cues surround us everywhere we turn.

Those unrelenting cues to eat – in our estimation – are a large, stubborn part of the problem. Simply ruling out junk food advertising to kids won’t solve it. We need a radical change in the business model for food marketing.

Click here for more from Belluz and here for the study in Pediatrics.

Blind Man’s Bluff, photograph by Clarence H. White / Library of Congress

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March 31, 2018

5 Responses to “Blind to the Biggest Drivers of Obesity?”

  1. March 31, 2018 at 10:13 am, Jim Hill said:


    Has no one pointed out that the number one thing advertised was autos? Its totally fair to criticize marketing of foods that contribute to positive energy balance, but how about pointing out that the number one form of marketing was for sedentary transportation? Would be nice to see a column on marketing of inactivity.

    • March 31, 2018 at 10:27 am, Ted said:

      Proving the point that we are far more blind than we realize. Excellent insight, Jim!

  2. March 31, 2018 at 11:35 am, David Stone said:

    Ted, have there been any estimates of the effect on weight-gain of the widespread reduction/cessation of smoking in America over the last few decades? I was never a smoker, but I do recall that people who tried to quit would complain about the wt-gain that would result.

    • March 31, 2018 at 3:30 pm, Ted said:

      As a matter of fact David, Roland Sturm estimated once that ~10% of the excess in obesity is attributable to smoking cessation

  3. March 31, 2018 at 2:47 pm, Allen Browne said:

    As the man said “It ain’t that simple!”