'Walking billboards of junk food': Doctors raise kids' clothing concerns

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Move over unicorns, the latest trend in kids' clothing has seen t-shirts and dresses emblazoned with doughnuts, pizzas and pastries - and doctors are concerned. Could constantly being exposed to images of junk food on clothes be influencing our kids' eating habits?

It's a question mother-of-three and pediatrician Megan Pesch who studies childhood eating behaviours at the University of Michigan, sought to explore in a study recently published in the journal Eating Behaviours.

"I started thinking about how food graphics on clothing may impact kids' identification with food starting as early as when they're babies," Dr Pesch says. "Turning our kids into walking billboards of junk food reinforces the appeal of these foods," she continues. "Whether intentional or not, we are sending positive societal messages about consuming unhealthy food to children and their parents that may influence unhealthy eating behaviours long term."

Junk food appearing on t-shirts and sleepwear.
Junk food appearing on t-shirts and sleepwear.  Photo: University of Michigan

With little research conducted in the area, Dr Pesch and her colleagues began by analysing website content of 3870 clothing items over a month-long period in 2018, from four US retailers. One in 11 items included food graphics and two-thirds of those foods were "unhealthy". A third of the items featured food graphics "having fun," such as a pizza slice riding a skateboard.

For the researchers, one of the most interesting findings was the difference between the foods appearing on boys' and girls' clothing.

"'Sweet' categories (e.g. pastries, frozen desserts) were more common among girls, whereas "salty" categories (e.g. fast food, pizza) were more common among boys, which may represent underlying cultural expectations of characteristics of girls' versus boys' behaviour specifically that girls are expected to be "sweet", the authors write.

Foods were also often paired with characters, or presented as characters - for example a dinosaur with a thought bubble thinking about a hamburger, a sequined ice cream cone carrying a purse and soft-drink and chips high-fiving with the word "besties."

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But why might this be a problem?

"In concert with cartoon figures, colourful graphics, and catchy sayings, such images may have the intentional or unintentional consequence of promoting food items to children and their parents," the authors note. 

Adds Dr Pesch, "There is nothing wrong with a donut or cookie once in a while. They are 'sometimes foods' and completely fine in moderation.But children's association and relationship with food begins developing at a young age. Obesity is much more easily prevented than it is treated."

 While further research is needed, it's an area she says we need to understand more.

"We spend a lot of time studying how children develop eating habits and food preferences and what we can possibly do early on to prevent obesity," Dr Pesch says. "Food graphics on children's products may provide insights into how society shapes children's emotional relationships with food and reinforces obesity-promoting messaging."