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Dietitian examines effect of media messages on child obesity

Thursday, July 23, 2009 | 11:54 p.m. CDT; updated 2:32 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 7, 2011

COLUMBIA — A cross section of six different candy bars is projected on the screen, showcasing a medley of nougat, caramel and milk chocolate.

The next slide: six vaguely familiar vegetables. Something that resembles a turnip, but isn't quite the right shape. Something that looks like a carrot, but lacks the correct shade.

This peculiar combination of images was part of dietitian Melinda Hemmelgarn's talk about food advertising's effect on childhood obesity. The presentation aired live on Columbia Access Television on Thursday night.

Members of the live studio audience shouted out the names for the six candy bars, with little to no mistakes. The vegetables provided slightly more pause, but an expert gardener was in the audience and guided the other members. (The two vegetables mentioned above were a rutabaga and some parsnips, respectively.)

"Usually people can hardly name any of the vegetables, especially younger people," Hemmelgarn said.

This presentation was the third in a four-part series by C.A.T. titled "Community Perspectives on Child and Adult Obesity." C.A.T. received $20,000 in funding from the Public Communication Resource Advisory Committee in January to put on the series.

"It's meant to bring together members of the scientific community, the general public and officials to discuss childhood obesity and see what barriers there are to combating this issue," said Mara Aruguete, former member of the C.A.T. board of directors, who helped write the proposal that gained C.A.T. funding.

Talking about the healthiness of food is nothing new for Hemmelgarn, who wrote a column called Food Sleuth that was featured in the Columbia Daily Tribune for roughly 20 years. Since 2005, she and her husband have also been producing "Food Sleuth TV," a monthly program on C.A.T.

Hemmelgarn focused on the importance of media literacy, or reading between the lines, as a means to fight child obesity. One example she gave is a children's book titled "The Hershey's Milk Chocolate Fractions Book." The book involved breaking apart pieces of a Hershey's chocolate bar to use in teaching fractions, Hemmelgarn explained.

"I don't know anyone who opens a candy bar, then doesn't eat it," Hemmelgarn said amid audience chuckles.

On another slide she displayed a McDonald's ad showing a pile of chicken nuggets, and at the bottom of the ad it read "0 grams of trans fat." She argued that people need to reach a healthy level of skepticism between "sponges" and cynics, and to critically question advertisements.

"It says zero grams of trans fat, but what is left out? Where did the chicken come from, what's in it and how was it prepared? How are the animals raised? How are the farm laborers treated?" Hemmelgarn challenged.

"You can't just teach people anymore — not parents, and certainly not kids," audience member Patti Schnitzer said after the presentation. Schnitzer is a professor at the MU School of Nursing. "They've heard the messages before over and over. They know fast food is fattening. But it's the responsibility of the community and the society to help enable people to live a healthy lifestyle."

C.A.T. will air the fourth and final presentation in the series on Aug. 27. It will feature Ian Thomas speaking about PedNet Coalition's Walking School Bus program.


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