It’s not new information that obesity and diabetes are health problems that greatly impact Black and Hispanic communities. For years, researchers, public health officials, and medical experts have stressed the damaging and lasting impact that obesity can have on these communities, especially among children and teens.
Despite the knowledge about the risks of obesity, the percentage of Black and Hispanic teens with obesity is increasing at disproportionate rates. In addition, to add insult to injury, recent research shows that fast food companies in America are not helping this dangerous situation. In fact, junk food brands are targeting Black and Hispanic youth with their advertising.
On any given day, the report notes that one-third of children and adolescents consume fast food, which means they also consume hundreds of extra, empty calories from unhealthy foods and sugary drinks. Fast food consumption is even higher among Black and Hispanic kids and teens, who are already at an elevated risk of health issues due to obesity.
The solution, health experts agree, is to limit fast food consumption with kids. However, research shows that fast food companies are marketing to Black and Hispanic youth, putting an already at-risk population in an even more compromising position.
The Facts About Obesity in Black and Hispanic Youth
Obesity among America’s youth is an undeniable problem. The CDC reports that based on 2017-2018 data, 14.4 million children and adolescents aged 2-19 were diagnosed as obese in the U.S. That equates to a prevalence of 19.3 percent, and as shocking as those numbers may be, they are even worse for Black and Hispanic populations. The prevalence was 25.6% among Hispanic children and 24.2% among non-Hispanic Black children.
Similarly, according to the CDC, “non-Hispanic Black adults (49.6%) had the highest age-adjusted prevalence of obesity, followed by Hispanic adults (44.8%).” The most worrisome fact is that, where teenagers are concerned, the numbers are going in the wrong direction, with the percentage of teens with obesity increasing significantly.
Over the past decade, the percentage of Black and Hispanic teens with obesity has gone up considerably. The prevalence of obesity among non-Hispanic white teens has not changed, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The research shows that for Mexican American adolescents with obesity, the numbers increased from 22.3% to 30.6%, and severe obesity increased from 7.6% to 12.9%. For non-Hispanic Black teens, obesity increased significantly from 21.1% to 28.2%.
The numbers are not good, the trends are going in the wrong direction, and the health hazards today and the future are significant. Children who are obese are far more likely to have obesity as adults, and obesity puts individuals at a higher risk of developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.
While there are many potential causes of obesity — ranging from genetics to health education — it’s very clear that the disparities in access to affordable, healthy food and safe spaces to be physically active are huge factors in an individual’s health.
Especially Black and Hispanic, access to nutritious foods and the ability to afford those foods are big obstacles to overcome. This fact is a reality that fast food companies are aware of and seem to be exploiting.
An easy target?
One of the main draws to fast food, aside from the flavor factor, is that it’s often marketed as a cheaper choice. It is positioned as a more affordable, more accessible option. Recent research shows that an alarming number of the fast food and junk food ads circulating in mainstream media target Black and Hispanic youth.
The research, published by the Rudd Center at the University of Connecticut, showed that in 2019 alone, the fast-food industry dedicated around $5 billion on advertising, mainly targeting Black and Hispanic youth. “Billion.” That’s a whole lot of money to target populations of children and teens in vulnerable communities of color. The study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “analyzed 2019 Nielsen data covering advertising spending and TV advertising exposure for 274 fast-food restaurants, including detailed analyses of the 27 top fast-food advertisers with the highest annual advertising spending and/or that targeted TV advertising to children, Hispanic, and/or Black consumers,” according to the study’s authors.
The results are alarming, to say the least. The data shows that “junk food comprised 86% of ad spending on black-targeted programming and 82% of spending on Spanish-language television in 2017.” And more than that, the data wasn’t just acknowledging the efforts to target the Black and Hispanic teen population. It proved that the products being pushed to minority teens are actually the unhealthiest items. “These companies are not just targeting black and Hispanic kids with their advertising, but they’re targeting them with the worst products,” said lead study author Jennifer Harris, from University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, as reported by CNN. And before you give these companies the benefit of the doubt, understand that the fast-food companies are not marketing fruit and vegetables or water. In fact, the money put towards health foods advertising “is less than 3 percent for the general population and less than 1 percent to blacks and Hispanics,” explains Harris.
The targeted advertising is so obvious that it’s almost hard to recognize anymore, suggests Shiriki Kumanyika, a study co-author and chair of the Council on Black Health at Drexel. “The marketing is so pervasive that it’s almost invisible,” she told NBC News. “I’m not sure it’s really widely known in black communities that this amount of money is being used to promote unhealthy products. Some companies spend quite a bit of money to endear themselves to these communities that they don’t even give public health organizations a chance.”
Can Fast Food Companies Help Combat Obesity?
Awareness and information are key. The end goal of all these studies is to suggest how fast food companies can be more responsible and more aware of the harm they are doing by targeting these populations.
The researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, for example, are on a mission to make “recommendations on concrete steps fast-food restaurants can take to limit such marketing, such as expanding voluntary industry self-regulation to restrict unhealthy food advertising to children up to age 14 at a minimum, discontinuing ads for regular menu items on children’s TV channels and ending disproportionately high marketing to Hispanic and Black youth,” a news release states.
Their study also wants to establish proposed actions on a federal, state, and even local level to help promote nutritional foods for children and teens, particularly in at-risk communities, but across the board—one such suggestion: eliminating unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children as a tax-deductible expense.
“If the industry really values these consumers, companies will take responsibility for the advertising that encourages poor diet and related diseases,” said Amelie Ramirez, director of Salud America!, which advocates for health equity. “They can start by eliminating the marketing of unhealthy products to Hispanic youth and families.”