A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 50% of advertising on television shows for children under 12 is for food.

According to the report:

The study found that tweens ages 8-12 see the most food ads on TV, an average of 21 ads a day, or more than 7,600 a year. Teenagers see slightly fewer ads, at 17 a day, for a total of more than 6,000 a year. For a variety of reasons -- because they watch less TV overall, and more of their viewing is on networks that have limited or no advertising, such as PBS and Disney -- children ages 2-7 see the least number of food ads, at 12 food ads a day, or 4,400 a year.

And as you might expect, the advertising is mostly for not-so-healthy foods -- 34% of TV ads aimed at children are for candy or snacks. Only 15% of the ads depict an active lifestyle. Not one of the nearly 9,000 ads reviewed was for fruits or vegetables.

In contrast, the report says that teens see only 47 public service ads per year promoting fitness or nutrition.

The report makes no finding with regard to the effect of such advertising on children's eating habits or the growing epidemic of child obesity. But according to the Department of Health and Human services:

•Overweight in children and adolescents is generally caused by lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination of the two, with genetics and lifestyle both playing important roles in determining a child's weight.

• Our society has become very sedentary. Television, computer and video games contribute to children's inactive lifestyles.

• 43% of adolescents watch more than 2 hours of television each day.

In a report on the causes and prevention of obesity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends among other things:

• Reduce time spent watching television and in other sedentary behaviors

• Build physical activity into regular routines

• Ensure that the school breakfast and lunch programs meet nutrition standards

• Provide food options that are low in fat, calories, and added sugars

• Provide all children, from prekindergarten through grade 12, with quality daily physical education

So, a common theme is television and nutrition. It doesn't take a PhD to figure out there might be a connection between ads for unhealthy foods children are exposed to from watching too much TV and developing unhealthy lifestyle and eating habits at an early age.

As with many social indicators of health and wellbeing, the problem of obesity, and childhood obesity, is more prevalent in the South. The CDC's 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey studied child obesity in 39 participating states. At the top of the list for overweight teens are:

• Kentucky (16%)
• Alabama (15%)
• Indiana (15%)
• Oklahoma (15%)
• Arkansas (15%)
• Tennessee (15%)
• West Virginia (15%).

Other Southern states in double digits include North Carolina (14%), South Carolina (13%), Georgia (12%), and Florida (11%). This does not include teens at risk for becoming overweight (18% in Tennessee and Alabama, for example).

Among the factors cited for Tennessee, which are similar for other states:

• 85% ate fruits and vegetables less than 5 times per day during the past 7 days

• 68% did not meet currently recommended levels of physical activity

• Only 21% of school canteens have fruits or vegetables available for purchase

Some might argue that Southern Cuisine such as fried-chicken and biscuits and gravy are part of the problem, but another possible reason for the prevalence of obesity in the South is the connection to poverty, which may not sound logical at first.

Contrary to Rush Limbaugh's assertion that obesity proves that poverty and hunger are not a problem, studies show a strong link between poverty and poor nutrition, and not necessarily a lack of nutrition but rather the wrong kind of nutrition.

A report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says "the highest rates of obesity occur among population groups with the highest poverty rates and the least education." Unfortunately, that includes much of the South.

The study looks at food energy-density v. cost, among other things, and concludes:

Consumer food choices are driven by taste, cost, and convenience, and to a lesser extent by health and variety. Research has linked growing obesity rates with a growing consumption of snacks, fast foods, and soft drinks and with the consumption of high-energy-density diets. What energy-dense foods have in common is low energy cost, due in part to the presence of added sugars and fat. Some nutrition professionals have already noted that diets consumed by groups with a lower [socio-economic status] provide cheap, concentrated energy from fat, sugar, cereals, potatoes, and meat products but very little intake of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. [..] Our central hypothesis is that limited economic resources may shift dietary choices toward an energy-dense, highly palatable diet that provides maximum calories per the least volume and the least cost.

And back to the original theme, the report also notes that eating habits, healthy or othwerwise, are developed at an early age, and:

Television advertising has been cited as a factor contributing to higher energy and fat intakes and so has the marketing of energy-dense foods. [..] Studies suggest that some of this advertising may be targeted at children and at low-income consumers. As indicated above, such foods provide energy at a much lower cost than do fresh vegetables and fruit, which are perceived as luxury items and are not always easily accessible.

So in addition to improving education and continuing the fight against poverty, maybe we should watch less TV, enjoy more active pursuits in the beautiful Southern outdoors (and reduce your kids' exposure to TV ads for unhealthy foods in the process) and consume more Grainger Co. tomatoes, Vidalia onions, South Carolina peaches and Florida citrus along with our fried-chicken and biscuits and gravy.