Under the influence — how we must escape the pressure to eat unhealthily

Eating is strongly influenced by social context. We eat differently when we are with other people. If we eat with someone who is filling their plate, we are more likely to eat more than if we are dining alone.

Conversely, we might eat less than usual if we think that eating a small amount will create a favorable social impression. If you are having lunch with your boss or your fiancée’s parents, you may be more likely to choose the healthy or less messy option. Even the color of our clothes influences whether you are likely to go for the Bolognese over the fish.

Other people provide a guide for appropriate behaviour.

One of the first social influencers ahead of the social media age, was Britney Spears when she started dancing and singing across television sets drinking Pepsi. How many fourteen-year-olds watching her, were likely to reach for Pepsi instead of anything else?

When today’s teenagers are looking for a snack, they are probably more interested in Charli D’Amelio than their parents. That’s because the 16-year TikTok star is the social media platform’s most-followed person with 108 million followers — and almost one-third of TikTok users are between the ages of 10 and 19.

Recently, D’Amelio partnered with Dunkin’ to develop and advertise ‘The Charli’ — cold coffee with whole milk and three whooshes of caramel swirl. A medium Charli has 250kcals, a large has 340 kcals. At a reputed $100,000 per TikTok post from the social media star, the capacity of these obesogenic products to influence market share can scarcely be imagined.

YouTube is also used by food companies to sponsor children, whose parents film them playing with toys or celebrating birthday parties, to promote their products. The highest-paid influencer in 2019 was an 8-year-old who earned $26 million.

food sales

Research to quantify the extent to which junk food product placements appear in YouTube videos from child influencers was published in the journal Paediatrics, in 2020. Nearly half of the most popular videos (42.8%) promoted food and drinks. More than 90% of products shown were unhealthy branded food and drinks, with fast food as the most frequently featured junk food, followed by sweets, chocolate, and soft drinks. The research shows that people trust influencers because they appear to be ‘everyday people’ – when you see young children eating everyday foods, it doesn’t necessarily look like advertising. But advertising it is.

Given rising obesity levels and increased regulatory pressure to reduce consumption of ‘unhealthy’ food and drink, this must change.

Spain recently announced plans to ban influencers’ ‘influence’ over younger generations, when it comes to foods high in fat and sugar. Spain’s consumer affairs ministry said: “The ban would prohibit appearances in commercial communications by parents, educators, teachers, children’s TV professionals, sportspeople, artists, influencers and people or characters — be they real or fictional – who may, by dint of their careers , be likely to represent a model or example for these minors.”

The ministry described an influencer as a person with a high level of influence over children and young people because of their large number of followers on social or digital media, and who interacts through messages on networks, blogs, posts, videos or similar media. The campaign comes at a time when a 2019 study in Spain revealed that almost 40% of children between the age of 3 and 8 years old there are overweight or obese.

The proposal which has yet to be made into law is a further step to legislating for a healthier food environment. Late last year, Spain’s consumer affairs minister said he planned to ban advertisements for unhealthy foods that target younger audiences across a variety of media channels. In France, advertising restrictions are also in place, as are taxes on sugary drinks.

The UK has plans to introduce robust legislation in October 2022, to restrict advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar being shown on TV before 9 pm and in paid-for advertising online, as well as restricting unhealthy food promotions in stores and online .

In Ireland, the most recent figures from the fifth round of The Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) study, published in 2020, found that 20.9% of girls and 17.4 % of boys were overweight or obese. The last four decades have seen a tenfold increase in childhood obesity in Ireland.

In June 2020 the newly elected Government committed to addressing obesity with a Public Health (Obesity) Act, including restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods to children although to date, there is little evidence of progress on this move.

These initiatives are all steps in the right direction. And yet sportspeople, actors, models, and influencers many of whom are popular amongst children — continue to get behind unhealthy food brands.

Food companies pay premium rates for advertising — analysis in the BMJ in 2019 found that spending on junk food is nearly 30 times what spends on promoting healthy eating.

This is where regulation comes to play. A ban on the promotion of unhealthy foods has the capacity to encourage influencers and others popular with young children to promote physical activity and healthy, sustainable and responsible eating habits.

good example

Cristiano Ronaldo made headlines in June 2021 at a Euro 2020 press conference when he removed two bottles of Coca Cola out of sight of camera, encouraging people to drink water instead.

He followed it by holding a bottle of water before saying in Portuguese: ‘Agua!’ Coca-Cola’s share price dropped by 1.6% almost immediately and the market value of Coca-Cola dropped by $4bn.

Paul O’Connell along with fellow rugby internationals James Ryan, Beibhinn Parsons and Linda Djoualong have recently fronted a campaign to encourage kids who are into their sport to eat fruit and vegetables. As Ross O’Carroll-Kelly tweeted: “If Paul O’Connell told me to eat fruit and vegetables, I would eat fruit and vegetables. I wouldn’t even peel them first.” More of this please.

The State has a mandate to protect the health and wellbeing of children. This need has been accelerated by the Covid pandemic where there are clear indications that obesity levels have risen substantially. Key to success is recognition that the obesity crisis is far less of a problem of individual behavior and lack of willpower and much more about the environments around us.

Addressing the imbalance between ‘unhealthy’ and ‘healthy’ advertising and ensuring that we are acutely aware of how much influence some celebrities have over our children’s’ lifestyle choices, is the way forward.

Spain’s proposal brings a proposed ban on online marketing of unhealthy foods one step further and is an example of the progressive action required across the globe to protect children and challenge the way we eat.

  • Dr Catherine Conlon is Senior Medical Officer in the Department of Public Health, St Finbarr’s Hospital, Cork and former Director of Human Health and Nutrition, safefood. Her book ‘Modern Culture and Wellbeing’ was published by Veritas in 2020.

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