In some of my recent articles I've discussed the effects — both positive and negative — that childhood experiences can have on adulthood. From those discussions, it should be obvious that we need to be more conscious of the messages we send children in this era of widespread childhood obesity. At no other time in history have we seen major disease markers normally seen only in adults appearing so frequently in children.
Because children are not able to make the best decisions for their well-being, they're vulnerable to the messages they're bombarded with day in and day out. Adults must recognize that these messages can have far-reaching consequences.
Many of the messages that we, as a society, give children may not be obvious.
During a brief visit to Westfield Citrus Park, I passed by the food court to get to my car. On the way, I noticed that a space inside the seating area of the food court had been reserved as a play area for children. The play area provided things for kids to climb and jump on — how fun! A closer look at the play area, however, was troubling. The objects provided for the children to play on were supersized versions of a can of cola, a hot dog, a cheeseburger, a slice of pepperoni pizza and an ice cream cone. On the carpet around these items were the words "yummy" and "good."
Because the food court is primarily composed of businesses selling fast food, and because kids will climb and play on just about anything, I wondered whether the mall purposely chose the fast-food items for a self-serving reason, rather than as a nice gesture to shoppers and their children. After all, the hot dog could just as easily have been a banana, and the hamburger could have been an apple.
The advertising industry understands what pushes the buttons of adults to get us to want all kinds of products, and the tiny brains of children are susceptible to the same kind of manipulation. By pairing fast food with fun and the words "yummy" and "good," we are conditioning our children to think of fast food as "good" food and to make positive associations. Is that really the message we want to send?
Here's one reason we should be concerned about such messages: metabolic syndrome, a condition that used to be unheard of in children.
Metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors that raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Having three of the five following conditions qualifies as metabolic syndrome:
• An excessively large waistline.
• A high triglyceride level, or being on medication for high triglycerides.
• A low HDL cholesterol level, or being on medication for low HDL levels.
• High blood pressure.
• High fasting blood sugar.
So, as a society, we can't just trust that others, such as manufacturers of fast-food products, will design their products and advertising with our children's health in mind. It's up to us, the public and the caretakers of these children, to be aware and active in expecting that the health of our young loved ones will be well protected — even when it comes to what they climb on at playgrounds.
Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management."