Shaping Youth’s Gross Out Game for Good Nutrition

champions-for-change.jpgJust returned from Champions for Change, the state summit for a healthier California, and picked up some positive validation that Shaping Youth’s reality show games are on target in the solutions-based arena of obesity intervention.

Our nutrition pilot, “Dare to Compare: A Gross Out Game for Good Nutrition” echoes the core concepts and research reflected by two of the keynote speakers, Yale’s Kelly Brownell, PhD (Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity & Prof. in the Dept. of Psychology) and Dr. Debra Cohen (Sr. Natural Scientist at the RAND Corporation) though the heavy-handed environmental focus almost implies that if we’d just remove junk food altogether we’d all be in good shape. (an unrealistic over-simplification)

Both speakers addressed causal links in kids’ environments (availability/access to junk food everywhere, media/marketing, sedentary/safety issues, etc.) and pointed out that even ‘experts’ are often overweight, so it’s not just ‘education,’ or ‘restraint/willpower’ or energy gap issues alone, there’s also complex physical/scientific behavioral response research that needs factored in. (yep, ever notice the obese medical staff in hospitals? The irony always gets my attention)

The need to create awareness and intention (media literacy, yay!) as well as ‘deputize’ others in ‘train the trainer’ mode aligns perfectly with Shaping Youth’s programs to embrace an ‘optimal default’ of exposure/access to healthy foods. Though I still hold steadfast to personal responsibility in all its forms, including parents, peers, marketing ethics and purchase power, so we parted ways a bit there…I’m a die-hard existentialist by nature.

brain-at-work.jpgFor example: How the Brain Works

Dr. Cohen dwelled on the dominance of automatic impulses, ‘subliminal priming’ (setting the mood so to speak) and physical mimicking/aping research so much that I began to feel like humans were being portrayed as helpless Pavlovian pooches sans free agency…Simple primates manipulated by our environs and emotional triggers with zero control…

That’s not gonna completely wash with me, as our programs are beginning to show we can mitigate some of that damage by backflipping the message and lifting the veil on the core motivation. (much like the Truth campaign did with tobacco to kids) I wrote about behavioral cues in my post, “Brain Waves, Brand Names & Brainwashing.”

Although looking at Adweek’s recent article on advertisers amping up behavioral target marketing it looks like we’ll have to double our efforts to combat peer driven junk food allure/what’s cool with kids just to stay even. Yowza.

(whew. Now’s the time to go after serious funding so we can roll out these programs open source en masse! If you have alliances that are a good fit, send ’em our way…sooner the better!)

Dr. Brownell and Dr. Cohen both made salient points and I gleaned some NEW fodder for Shaping Youth’s “media m-powerment life skills” using our counter-marketing games so all in all, it was a productive summit…

In fact, I found significant overlap with topics we’re covering, such as portion distortion, psychological influences, media/marketing environs, awareness of mindless eating vs. intention, product placement and persuasive tactics, etc. so I know Shaping Youth is on the right track.

hippety-hopper.pngIn addition to the research on the brain’s dopamine response to food stimulus (Kelly Brownell talked about an artificial stimulation to be hungry and automatic behavioral responses to environs, and answered a few questions like his article here on what) he also showed a hilarious but SCARY photo of a mouse nibbling normal food and a mouse nibbling junk food that had increased several times its size.

Remember the Looney Tunes Tweety cartoons where the giant mouse Hippety Hopper (really a kangaroo) makes Sylvester the cat do a double-take? Well, it was THAT kind of “whoa” visual moment seeing the two critters side by side!!

Dr. Brownell also cited Nora Volkow’s research on food addiction, and how this lil’ mouse kept coming back for more without being satiated, triggering chemical responses that made judgment of appetite/volume consumed irrelevant.

Can food be an addiction? Evidently so.

“Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have found that the mere display of food–where food-deprived subjects are allowed to smell and taste their favorite foods without actually eating them–causes a significant elevation in brain dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. This activation of the brain’s dopamine motivation circuits is distinct from the role the brain chemical plays when people actually eat, and may be similar to what addicts experience when craving drugs…”

“Eating is a highly reinforcing behavior, just like taking illicit drugs,” said psychiatrist Nora Volkow, the study’s lead investigator. “But this is the first time anyone has shown that the dopamine system can be triggered by food when there is no pleasure associated with it since the subjects don’t eat the food. This provides us with new clues about the mechanisms that lead people to eat other than just for the pleasure of eating, and in this respect may help us understand why some people overeat.”

Source: Nonhedonic food motivation in humans involves dopamine in the dorsal striatum and methylphenidate amplifies this effect” Nora D. Volkow, et al.

(Um, yeah…)

Guess that’s why they did away with popcorn ads at the start of movies…

mindless-eating.jpgEvidently our bodies are ‘hard wired’ to PREFER sugar and fat, reinforcing dopamine reward signals and making it all the harder to resist same when subjected to the constant stimulation/impulse triggers in a ‘surround sound’ environment. (20 years ago, we didn’t have junk food in every gas station, rec room, corp. lounge, hospital gift shop and vendor concession)

Pretty certain Kelly Brownell is NOT implying we’ll all end up like fat rats with no control…and though we’re clearly outgunned on the marketing end, I’d like to think humans have more decision-making powers and choices than we’re being given credit for…though I DO agree wholeheartedly with his reinforcement that healthy food should be the “optimal default.” (Especially if we have food piped in via surround sound media 24/7 via every possible sensory medium known to humankind…)

His ‘optimal default’ logic is a great segue to the ‘conflict of interest’ conundrum with kids, sponsors, and food marketing tactics…

The way I see it, “wellness mandates” and policy shifts won’t do dookie until we confront media messaging and corporate cashflow infusions working at cross purposes. (not to mention politics, like the canned food lobbyists that usurped the fresh fruit bill, watering it down to enable their ‘light syrup’ goods to qualify)

Kids will be at risk until we stop allowing corporations whose allegiance is first and foremost to their stockholders to be the guardians of public health. Period.

appetite-for-profit.jpgMichele Simon’s Appetite for Profit will give you a comprehensive picture of the vast cash infusions working at cross purposes in this arena…Guarantee it will rock your world the way SuperSize Me did for many kids quaffing McDonalds.

I gave the book to all of our Shaping Youth volunteers last season who worked on our Dare To Compare Gross Out Game for Good Nutrition sessions…as well as our local advisory board, highly recommend!

Similarly, the documentary King Corn about how we eat and how we farm, as well as the corn subsidies driving our fast food nation, used media in a powerful message for evening entertainment. I even bought a copy for home use to resonate on a ‘peer to peer’ “aha” level…Check out the trailer here.

And for more food media for kids to digest, here’s an article I wrote about the Food Film Festival using movies to educate, including my favorite Free Range Studios cartoon crew doing there ‘forward to a friend’ viral marketing that kids gobble up.

two-angry-moms.gifDespite all the headline hubbub about obesity prevention fact is, it’s wafer thin until some core shifts are made en masse in obvious places like school lunch, after school programs, on-site concessions and policy. I’ll be interviewing the filmmakers tackling school lunch programs in their documentary film, but in the interim, here’s the story of Two Angry Moms via the Huffington Post…

Even at this Healthy Network for California conference with people purposely striving to create healthier environs for kids, some of the efforts were almost ‘roll of the eyes/tip of the iceberg’ solutions to a much deeper, embedded conundrum.

Yes, it was great to see considerable focus on health disparities/access/safety, children’s urban agriculture ideas and kids gardens like Urban Sprouts. And there was plenty of green team messaging…like the session I attended “Eating Green: An Investment in People” featuring People’s Grocery, Soil Born Farm, etc.

kidtribe-orange.jpgAND…there were some cool alternative exercise programs playing off the “hip to be healthy” hip-hop trend at Kids Tribe (very media/youth savvy; potential alignment there, hmn!) and active video (Wii, DDR, Jackie Chan and various “working out as play” media enticements) from the XRtainment Zone.


It was also frustrating to find very little attention being paid to the obvious persuasive motivators that need counter-marketed with facts to stem the pervasiveness. (i.e. media/mind & body correlation, peer to peer and parental influence, fat is fiscal school sponsored financial ties, etc.) and lack of viable policy drivers to place public health ahead of profit.

digital-ads.jpgAs it stands now, we still have covert and overt undermining of parental authority, including Digital Ads (full media literacy site on interactive food & beverage marketing that’s targeting kids here) as well as advergaming,mobile media…and on-site vested interests, school alliances and vendor ties that exist in tandem w/attempts at health education/nutrient balance.

Until that concept of working at cross purposes has a paradigm shift, obesity prevention is mostly lip-service and media hype to me.

We’re still seeing way too much of the ol’ ‘swap sports drinks for soda’ mentality without regard to the bigger picture of nutrient balance, cultural competency, and environmental factors that could create an “optimal default.”

It’s heartening to see California striving to lead the way, but clearly we have a loooooooooooooong way to go to ‘get there.’

What’s it like in your state, or your country?Any ‘best practices’ to share? Are kids healthy where you live? Are YOU?

With Microsoft bringing digital video ads to grocery carts soon, and Britain going in the other direction, banning junk food ads on kids programs to herald in 2008, it’ll be a tug-o-war of multiple factions for quite some time to discern what works, what doesn’t, and what has yet to be tried.

p.s. Australia? Haven’t heard from my food friends there in awhile…ping me with your latest!! How’s the Parent’s Jury going? Fill us in! What are your latest healthy tactics for obesity intervention? More on the summit in another post soon…

Related Resources

Mindless by Brian Wansink, PhD/Cornell

The Bottomless Soup Bowl Study: Visual Cues/Portion Control Intake

The McSubway Study (healthy halos & fast food fare)

Top Three MINDFUL Eating Tips

Kelly Brownell on WebMd: Weight Loss, What Really Works?

Kaiser Family Foundation/It’s Child’s Play: Advergaming & Online Food Marketing to Children

Sports Drinks: Who Needs ‘Em? (ABC News)

CSPI: Kids Food Site: Soda Leeches Calcium from Growing Bones

Kids Gobble Up Interactive Junk Food Marketing by Amy Jussel for Common Sense Media

Related 2007 Shaping Youth Articles Re: Junk Food/Childhood Obesity (with a gazillion links embedded!)

Bogus Junk Food Bans & Bait-n-Switch Tactics Proliferate School Policy

Test Your School Junk Food IQ With This Quick Quiz!

Food for Thought: Media to Digest For Healthier Kids

Will Kids Go For The “FryPod?” Brandwashing Nutritious Fare

CCFC’s Susan Linn: $17 billion Spent on Marketing to Kids

Lifestyle Cancers: Two Most Preventable Causes Harming Kids

Shaping Youth Brandwashing Data Is Larger Than Stanford’s Study

Maxed Out On Energy Drinks? Pepsi Shouts, “Wake Up People!”

Fuming Fuji Meets Shaping Youth: Food Marketing to Kids

Kellogg’s Agrees to Restrict Food Marketing to Kids!? For REAL?

Sprite Yard: A Mobile-Social-Soda Hangout?

Forbidden Fruit & Kids’ Food Advertising: FTC & KFF Compare

Get Kids To Eat Green Using Shrek Against His Drek

Digital Marketing Tactics Revealed to FTC: Report At

Online Media Nutrition Calculator Helps Parents Track Foods

Sour Combo: Shrek’s “Apples & Milk” At McDonalds

Sugary Shrek is Simultaneously Stumping For Kids’ Healthy Eating

Selling Healthy Kids Cuisine Via Product Presentation

Media, Shaping Youth: Kaiser Study Shows 50 Hours of TV Food Ads/Yr.

Kids’ Food Fight Turns Into Industry DodgeBall Game

Snack Attack: Counter-Marketing Using Shaping Youth’s “THREEP”

Sugary Sodas Falter, Now Caffeine & Sodium Rule

Pink Princess Fairytale Flakes; Candy Bars For Breakfast

Counter-marketing Junk Food With Rats & Tacos

Eat Like An Ape: The Media Circus at Work

Parents? Stay Ahead of The Game, Literally; Kellogg’s Advergaming

American Idol Ad: KFC ‘Sneaky Snacker’ is Brandwashing

Advergaming Arcades Shift Toward Virtual Villages & Kid Vid

Shaping Youth Slams Capri Sun With Counter-Marketing

Obesity Risk Twice as High in Hispanic Children

For more on peer drive junk food allure, extreme lunchbox makeovers and 2006 archives, click on “Childhood Obesity” category, with food features like:

School Sit-Ups Sponsored By Soda & Snacks

The Preteen Lunch Bunch, Selling Healthy Choices

And more…



  1. The author Michele Simon rightly urges us citizens to become involved in community education wherever possible. Now that people really understand that the earth cannot support a meat-based diet, it’s important to let low- and middle-income folks realize that a plant based diet is just as affordable as cheap fast food. Ms. Simon is spreading the word rightly: A plant-based diet that relies on whole fruits, veggies, grains, and beans can actually be more affordable than one heavy with meat and dairy products. The key is relying on unprocessed foods. Ms. Simon: “The science says that we should be eating mostly plant-based food, but the government recommendations reflect the desire of Big Food.” In Portland, we’re spreading the word too: Since meat is the no. 1 cause of global warming, our public outreaches find people agreeing to “Go Vegan On Mondays” since 20% more heart attacks occur on Mondays. And Portland is the most vegan-friendly large city in the United States. We need more books like Michele Simon’s, showing us what we can do now to save the world.

  2. yah, I’ve given out her book as a holiday gift annually for awhile now…helps with those NYResolutions! πŸ˜‰ Also just devoured the entire new issue of Good magazine which focuses on ‘Slow Food’ and (cover title SLOW DOWN’) as it has some great tips on plant-based nutrition for healthier living overall…most of my pals are ‘pescatarians’ (fish eaters) it seems, but a few teens I know are steering toward full vegan, so I’m looking into the body dev/nutrient balance there too, hoping to feature some of this in our Jan. content…thanks for taking the time to comment! Michele Simon rocks, and her work at Marin Institute is equally important on the kids/health front! πŸ™‚ HNY! –Amy

  3. We most definately cannot ignore obesity and have to all do our part to educate our children, our family members, and even friends to make sure they know about good nutrition and healthy eating habits and how harmful it can be. Britain is quickly becoming a nation that is getting more and more obese, and its quite sad to see. Luckily as a BodyBuilder by hobby Im able to enjoy a great physique and inspire others to having a life of better eating habits wherever I go, wether its at my gym or in the supermarket. Thanks for your useful information on this. Some very interesting thoughts.

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