Unhealthy Entertainment?

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Movie theaters have never been a friendly environment for healthy eating, with all of the fat-and-salt-drenched popcorn, candy, and sugary beverages for sale. But most diet-conscious people probably take comfort in the notion that once the movie begins, they’ll be swept away to a world free of sweet, salty, crunchy temptation and concerns about body weight. According to a recent study, however, this may be a false assumption if you’re seeing one particular kind of movie: one whose target audience is children.

For this study, conducted at the University of North Carolina Medical School and published earlier this month in the journal Obesity, researchers set out to explore the messages that children’s movies send about eating and weight. As noted in a campus news release, they examined the four highest-grossing G- or PG-rated movies of each year from 2006 to 2010, resulting in a total of 20 movies that included Kung Fu Panda, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel, and Shrek the Third. Each movie was divided into 10-minute segments for analysis, and each segment was scored individually by multiple researchers. Each researcher gave points for a segment based on whether characters acted consistently with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ obesity prevention recommendations, whether obesity was stigmatized, and whether behaviors were generally healthy, unhealthy, or neutral. Researchers’ scores were in agreement more than 85% of the time.

Out of all movie segments that included food, 51% showed unhealthy snacks, 26% showed exaggerated portion sizes, and 19% showed sugar-sweetened beverages. In addition, most movies showed characters watching screens themselves: 40% showed television-watching, 35% showed use of a computer, and 20% showed characters playing video games. Most movies — 70% — showed characters’ weight being stigmatized in some way; for example, in Kung Fu Panda, the main character, Po, is ridiculed for his belly and flabby arms when he expresses interest in becoming a kung fu master. Movie segments rated as “unhealthy” outnumbered those rated as “healthy” by a ratio of two to one.

The researchers concluded that popular movies send mixed messages to children concerning food and weight: On the one hand, they depict screen time and unhealthy dietary habits as normal and even fun; on the other hand, they show characters being shamed for being, or being perceived as, overweight. This depiction of weight-related stigma most likely reflects, as well as reinforces, the idea that making fun of someone’s weight can be funny — unlike, say, making fun of someone’s race or religion. At the same time, they usually fail to present an alternative to unhealthy, “obesogenic” behaviors.

What responsibility, if any, do you think creators of children’s movies have when it comes to showing healthy or unhealthy eating behaviors? Should food-related content be judged differently from other risky behaviors — such as, say, fighting an evil snow leopard or battling pirates? Do you suspect that marketing concerns, including fast-food sponsorships, play any role in how children’s movies depict eating behaviors? Leave a comment below!

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