Today’s youth are growing up with distorted, preconceived ideas of what is trendy to eat, drink, look like and do. All we see on social media, billboards and TV is good-looking athletes, celebrities and models flashing unrealistic bodies while indulging in junk food and promoting the notion that what they are doing is “perfection.”
We cannot go anywhere without seeing logos and advertisements. The memories we have, like our first hockey game and trips to the amusement park, are covered with the logos of big food and beverage brands.
As manipulating, omnipresent, and uncontrolled as this marketing already is, it puts young people at risk. Most children and youth don’t have the mental capacity to counter the impact these ads have on their life, on their subconscious, on their food preferences, and—ultimately– on their long-term health and wellness.
I know this because I was one of those children. Growing up, I was a very active kid, involved in numerous different sports and activities throughout the week: baseball, swim club, and cross country to name a few. Despite this amount of activity, at age 11, I started to rapidly gain weight.
For almost my entire life, I had complete access to the Internet and television. I played games online, I watched movies and shows on television, and later on became active on social media.
I was also born and raised in the West side of Vancouver; I spent a lot of my childhood exploring the city with my family and friends. What the internet, television, and living in a busy city have in common is that they are filled with advertisements.
Everywhere I looked as a child, I would see huge billboards with beautiful models with perfect bodies. I would see the greatest chocolate bar and the newest flavour of pop, the biggest burger and the new brand of gum.
To say I was not influenced by these ads would be a bold faced lie. I wanted to look a certain way but eat certain foods that would conflict me out of achieving that unrealistic body. Every billboard, every commercial shaped my idea of what “perfection” was and what I should be putting into my body.
All of this was further exacerbated the year my parents enrolled me in the hot lunch program at my elementary school. They were told I was to be fed nutritious, balanced, and portioned out meals at my school cafeteria. Instead, I was served highly processed foods, filled with sodium, saturated fats, and sweeteners.
In the first two years of high school, this type of junk food only became more accessible. I virtually had unlimited access to processed meat, deep fried foods, and sugary drinks to mention only a few.
Before I knew it, I was caught in a vicious cycle of eating disorders. I was also well on my way to becoming dangerously overweight.
It’s not until 2013 that, through painfully hard work and the support of friends, family, and mentors, I turned a corner. I started to heal, eventually adopted a healthy plant-based diet, and regained normal weight.
But, it really wasn’t easy. In fact, I was lucky I made it.
For years, I continued to receive conflicting messages about what to eat. On one hand, I was told to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. On the other, I was bombarded with sleek junk food ads; surrounded by vending machines; rewarded with sugar; served giant sizes of pop; constantly tempted by widely accessible junk food; and often times put in situations where junk food was the only option for meals and snacks outside of the home.
In a world where there are more advertisements than ever before, I can’t imagine what today’s children are going through. It is more important than ever to change the way children look at food, and to restrict food and beverage marketing to children. With millions of kids overweight, and even more millions not eating the minimum vital amounts of fruit and vegetables, it is not a matter of if we want to change as a society, but when. The sooner we educate children on their food choices and limit how companies can target them, the sooner we can see future generations live longer, healthier and happier lives.
I’m part of The Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition and would encourage anyone else who’s concerned about this issue to sign-up too.