Children’s movies send mixed messages about eating habits and obesity

Dec. 10, 2013

Two Gillings School of Global Public Health alumnae, now working in the UNC School of Medicine, have found that many recent popular children’s movies feature content involving some characters who have unhealthy eating behaviors and others who stigmatize them for being overweight or obese.

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Dr. Asheley Cockrell Skinner

The study, led by Eliana M. Perrin, MD, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics, and Asheley Cockrell Skinner, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and adjunct assistant professor of health policy and management in the Gillings School, was published online Dec. 6 in the journal Obesity.

In children’s media, where animals often exhibit human characteristics, sugar-sweetened beverages, exaggerated portion sizes and unhealthy snacks are common. So are TV-watching, computer use and video games.

This media world is not kind to those who are overweight. A panda who aspires to be a martial arts master is told he’ll never make it because of his “fat butt,” “flabby arms” and “ridiculous belly.” A chipmunk is called “fatty ratty.” A donkey, referred to as a “bloated roadside piñata,” is told he “should think about going on a diet.”

This is the world portrayed in the most popular live-action and animated children’s movies released in the U.S. over a four-year period, according to a mixed-methods analysis performed by an ensemble cast of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The examples cited above are drawn respectively from “Kung Fu Panda,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel” and “Shrek the Third.”

“These children’s movies offer a discordant presentation about food, exercise and weight status, glamorizing unhealthy eating and sedentary behavior, yet condemning obesity itself,” Perrin said.

In the study, Perrin and her co-authors analyzed the top-grossing G- and PG-rated movies from 2006 to 2010. Four movies per year were included, for a total of 20 movies. Segments from each movie were assessed for the prevalence of key nutrition and physical behaviors corresponding to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ obesity prevention recommendations for families, prevalence of weight stigma, assessment of the segment as healthy, unhealthy or neutral, and free-text interpretations.

With regard to eating behaviors, the researchers found that 26 percent of the movie segments with food depicted exaggerated portion size, 51 percent depicted unhealthy snacks and 19 percent depicted sugar-sweetened beverages.

With regard to depiction of behaviors, 40 percent of movies showed characters watching television, 35 percent showed characters using a computer and 20 percent showed characters playing video games.

Movie segments rated as “unhealthy” by the researchers outnumbered those rated as “healthy” by 2:1, and most of the movies (70 percent) included weight-related stigmatizing content.

“These popular children’s movies had significant ‘obesogenic’ content, and most contained weight-based stigma,” the study concludes. “They present a mixed message to children: promoting unhealthy behaviors while stigmatizing the behaviors’ possible effects.”

First author of the study is Elizabeth M. Throop (now at Valley City State University in North Dakota). Co-authors from UNC include Skinner and Michael J. Steiner, MD, MPH, both from the Department of Pediatrics in the UNC School of Medicine; and Andrew J. Perrin, PhD, associate professor of sociology in the College of Arts & Sciences. Adebowale Odulana, MD, MPH, now at the Medical University of South Carolina, is also a co-author of the study.


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu.