What Are The Olympics Teaching Your Kids About Food?

by Sally on February 11, 2014

OLYMPICS-MCNUGGETS

“McDonald’s is, like, the official restaurant of everything.”

That’s what my nine year old said to me as we were watching the Olympics the other night. That’s because every 10 minutes that McDonald’s commercial was on the screen. You know which one I’m talking about: the split-screen showing an Olympian biting their gold medal on one side and a person biting their Chicken McNugget on the other.

At first, I wondered: What’s the message of this ad? That if you eat enough Chicken McNuggets you’ll become a Olympian? That taking a bite of fast food is somehow as thrilling as receiving the highest athletic honor awarded on an international stage? Then I found out that the TV spot is called “Celebrate With a Bite”. So apparently, we’re supposed to celebrate someone else’s athletic achievement by eating a lump of processed chicken? I’m still confused.

A grown-up can see the silliness of this ad. A child? Maybe not.

That’s why I’m doing some deprogramming while we watch the speed skaters and snowboarders. Because while I love a lot of what the Olympics teach my kids–that hard work pays off no matter what your goal, that you can overcome challenges and setbacks, that there’s much to learn about other countries and cultures–I don’t love the messages they’re getting from most of the food advertising.

Here’s what I’m teaching them instead:

  • McDonald’s isn’t the official restaurant of the Olympics because it’s good food for the athletes or spectators. McDonald’s spends a lot of money to be there.
  • Just because an Olympian endorses McDonald’s or Subway doesn’t mean that the food is good for them or for you. It doesn’t even mean the athlete eats that kind of food. It means they’ve been paid to say they like it.
  • Athletes, even those on the college level, work with dietitians to develop an eating plan that will keep them fueled and focused. You don’t become a great athlete on a steady diet of fast food and junk food.
  • Coke is not what athletes use to stay hydrated. They drink water. (Some may use sports drinks, but most kids don’t need them.)

I want my kids to get the counter-message to all these commercials and become savvy enough to see through the glitz and fun that millions of ad dollars can buy. They’re capable of understanding these concepts. And hopefully if they understand those concepts, they won’t come to associate being cool and having fun with eating McDonald’s and drinking Coke. They’ll see it for what it is: People trying to make a lot of money.

How disappointing that athletes–including Olympic athletes–so often endorse junk food. An incredible 79 percent of the foods and drinks athletes endorse are high-calorie, low-nutrient foods like Oreos, McDonald’s, and Mountain Dew, according to a study last year. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, they endorsed products that were in line with the kind of healthy lifestyle they themselves are presumably living–the kinds of lifestyles we want our kids to be living too?

Wouldn’t it be nice if fruits and vegetables were, like, the official foods of everything?

I wrote this post as part of the Olympic Moms campaign, which encourages families to use the Olympics as an inspiration for better health, fitness, and family fun. Download the free Participant Guide for ideas, expert advice, and recipes.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Casey February 11, 2014 at 5:38 pm

Children are uniquely vulnerable and companies like McDonald’s know this: Research consistently demonstrates that until the age of 8 years, most children do not possess the necessary cognitive skills to understand that advertising is not just another source of information and presents a biased point of view. Although older children and adolescents understand the intent of advertising, they do not regularly act on that knowledge nor do they attempt to counteract its influence. Resisting advertisements for the highly tempting products commonly promoted also requires the ability to weigh long-term health consequences of consumption against short-term rewards, an ability that is not fully developed persuade indirectly (eg, through logo placements, associations with popular characters and movies, and Internet games) are designed to create lifelong customers by imprinting brand meaning into the minds of young children. Before children know better, they have learned to love the products they encounter most frequently and associate with positive experiences. http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2011/sep/10_0272.htm

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Sally February 11, 2014 at 5:43 pm

Thanks for this Casey. My kids so rarely see commercials b/c they view media mostly through Netflix and DVDs. So this onslaught of commercials is not a welcome change and nearly impossible to avoid unless we turn off the TV during commercial breaks. I know my 9 year old can understand–he’s becoming much more savvy about these things. My almost-six year old can at least hear the message from someone who is (for now, time is running out!) still his biggest influence.

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Wendy Young February 11, 2014 at 11:57 pm

EXCELLENT article! This is why watching television WITH kids is so important. So we can point out inconsistencies, half-truths and more. I think it is so vital to teach kids to become informed consumers. BRAVO!

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Sally February 12, 2014 at 9:25 am

Thanks Wendy!

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Bri February 12, 2014 at 1:31 pm

You may want to reinforce your message by sharing this article with them! I thought it was such a great look at what an athlete really needs to sustain Olympic-level performance, as opposed to what marketers want us to THINK they need! http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/sports/olympics/nutritionist-believes-healthy-diet-is-key-to-gold.html?_r=0

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Sally February 12, 2014 at 2:25 pm

That’s great Bri, thanks for the heads-up! I like how the one player referred to the Big Macs she *was* eating before the sports dietitian came along as “garbage”.

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Rachel @YonderWild February 13, 2014 at 11:52 am

I thought the same thing when I first saw these advertisements. What a terrible association – Olympic athletes and McDonalds! If these athletes eat this stuff at all, it is before a workout that burns off thousands of calories right after. Unfortunately Mother Nature just doesn’t have the advertising budget to compete with huge corporations!

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Sally February 13, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Rachel–Ha! No, Mother Nature doesn’t, but she needs one! :)

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